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British Cavalry in the Peninsular: Camp Life

As I think is obvious from other posts I am a reenactor, currently with the 16th Light Dragoons of the Napoleonic Association. Nowadays at re-enactment events there is a demand for living history displays in addition to the usual battles and skirmishes.at events. With this in mind I have been researching just how the 16th lived during the Peninsular campaigns. This article addresses camping, or, rather, bivouacking and its associated equipment.

There are a number of references in various journals and diaries to tents used by the cavalry, mostly by Hussar officers. Tomkinson, however, whose journal of his time in the Peninsular is a treasure trove of information, refers to the 16th as in tents on only one occasion, on 9th May, 1809 when the 16th bivouacked for the first time.1 Subsequently he makes a number of assertions that the cavalry had no tents. Admittedly, his account breaks off after 11 May 1809, when he was seriously wounded, starting again in March 1810 when he returned to the Peninsula and rejoined the 16th.

In July 1810 he records camping in a small wood. ‘We had been so long in this bivouac that we made huts for ourselves, many of the men doing the same.’2 Of another bivouac he records ‘It was a most excellent camp, the trees affording capital shade; and from the length of time we had been there, each man had a good hut, and the encampment wore the appearance of a small village. Cocks and myself had nothing with us but a change of linen, a pot to boil potatoes, and the same to make coffee in, with a frying pan, which were carried on his led horse’.3

On 12 June 1811 he recorded ‘In using the word camped I ought to say bivouacked, as the army had no tents. The men put one blanket on the ground, lay down in their cloaks, and being two together had another blanket to cover them. The officers did the same, and if it rained we got wet.’4 On 20 August 1812 he wrote; We moved so late that we encamped (or rather bivouacked, never having any tents) on the banks of the river…5 The following year, on 29th May 1813 he wrote ‘the infantry are all under canvas… The cavalry have no tents; we shall get the oftener into the villages’.6

Billeting in villages seems to have been the preferred option for the cavalry. On occasion they were in very poor buildings, on others in convents, monasteries and the like.

Captain Cocks of the 16th recorded their marching to Mafra on 11th October 1810, ‘We had been almost constantly in the field without even tents, for near four months…’7

Hawker of the 14th Light Dragoons records a similar tale of poor billets and bivouacking in the open. 11th May 1809, ‘We passed the night without any cover; the dews were falling so heavy as to soak our clothes and be wrung from our night caps’.8 The 14th also made huts, on 14th July 1809 he refers to ‘making our huts’ and how, on 20th July ‘a large pomegranate-tree saved some of us the trouble of building a hut…’9

The preference for bivouacking seems to have been to find a wood. Obviously, this would provide a degree of shelter, firewood and materials for building huts if time allowed. Less obviously it also appears to have facilitated picketing the horses.

Mollo, in Waterloo Uniforms, 1, British Cavalry, states that there was one picket rope for every nine horses. There was also a pair of forage cords for every horse.10 Farmer, who was in the 14th Light Dragoons recalled how the horses had to be trained ‘to sleep picketed and in the open air…’11 There are no mentions of picket poles or anything to support a picket line. This could explain the liking for woods; the lines could be set up between trees. An unknown officer of dragoons records camping in a ‘magnificent chestnut grove’ and how the horses were tied to the trees ‘by means of a forage cord encircling the tree’.12 Presumably the mature chestnuts were too far apart for the picket lines.

Another aspect of the life of the light dragoons is that the horses were rarely unsaddled when anywhere near the enemy. Tomkinson wrote on 26th June 1810; ‘We never unsaddle excepting in the evening, merely to clean the horses; and at night the men sleep in the appointments, with their bridle reins in their hands, ready to turn out in an instant. At two in the morning the whole turn out and remain on their alarm ground until the pickets relieved, come in, and all is quiet’. Again, on 4th July 1810; ‘We soon learned to sleep in the day or at any time – never undressed – and at night all the horses were bridled up, the men sleeping at their heads, and the officers of each troop close to their horses altogether’.13

With regard to equipment, it nearly all had to be carried on the horses. An order issued by Wellington at Abrantes, 19th June, 1809;
Each regiment of cavalry has fourteen mules, eight for carrying camp kettles, one for the Surgeon, and one for the Paymaster, which, bat money having been received for them, the persons respectively are liable to keep up. Besides these, a regiment of cavalry has one mule for the Veterinary Surgeon, one for the Serjeant Armourer, one for the Serjeant Saddler, and one for the intrenching tools.14

A list of equipment is given by Mollo;15
Canteens and straps 1 per man
Haversacks 1 per man
Blankets 1 per man
Bill-hooks 1 per 10 men
Camp-kettles 1 per 10 men
Sets of forage-cords (4 per set) ½ set per horse [28 lbs per horse]
Picquet ropes 1 per 9 horses
Water buckets 1 per 12 horses
Nose bags (hair) 1 per horse
Cornsacks 1 per horse [to hold 30 lbs]
Reaping-hooks 10 per troop
Spades 1 per troop
Shovels 1 per squadron
Pickaxes 1 per squadron
Felling-axes 1 per squadron

The forage-cords, picquet ropes, nosebags and cornsacks were carried on the horse while the remaining equipment was carried in the regimental baggage.

Another item of equipment that is not on the above list is the water deck. An order issued at Badajoz, 31st Oct 1809;
Orders having been received to draft the horses of the 23d Light Dragoons…
The collars and chains will be delivered over with the horses…
…to transfer to the regiments…such number of swords, pistols carbines, sets of horse appointments, cornsacks, water decks, and blankets as will complete the effective strength of those regiments…16
A water deck is, apparently a square of canvas, 54 inches square.17 Red ones are visible in paintings of the Scots Greys at Waterloo.

A cornsack can hold 30lbs of corn, it also had other uses. In October 1811 Wellington examined the contents of the corn sack of a dismounted man of the 16th Light Dragoons. It contained; ‘his bags, three blankets, a jacket, &c, haversack, accoutrements, pots, pans, &c, &c’.18

Pairs of forage cords were replaced with pairs of forage nets at some point, but either could hold/secure approximately 30/40lbs of green forage.

Picket posts are mentioned on the official return form and in 1815, but there is no mention from anything relating to the Peninsular, just as with tents.19

There is a possibility that each man had a blanket or two in addition to that under the saddle, but this far from certain.

1 Lieut.-Col. William Tomkinson, The Diary of a Cavalry Officer, 1809-1815 (Frederick Muller, London, 1971), p. 3
2 Tomkinson, Diary, p.32
3 Tomkinson, Diary, p.37
4 Tomkinson, Diary, p.107
5 Tomkinson, Diary, p.197
6 Tomkinson, Diary, p.235
7 Julia V. Page, Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula (Spellmount, Tunbridge Wells, 1986), p.87
8 Peter Hawker, Journal of a Regimental Officer during the Recent Campaign in Portugal and Spain under Lord Viscount Wellington (J Johnson, London, 1810), p.52
9 Hawker, Journal, p.86 and p.88
10 John Mollo, Waterloo Uniforms, 1. British Cavalry (Historical Research Unit, London, 1973), p.78
11 G R Gleig, The Light Dragoon (George Routledge, London, 1850), p.35
12 An Officer of Dragoons, The British Cavalry in the Peninsula, in The United Service Journal, 1832, Part II, p.336
13 Tomkinson, Diary, p.25 and p.30
14 Lieutenant Colonel John Gurwood, The General Orders of Field Marshall The Duke of Wellington, KG (William Clowes, London, 1837), p.217
15 Mollo, Waterloo, British Cavalry, p.78
16 Gurwood, General Orders, p.55
17 Major G Tylden, Horses and Saddlery (J A Allen, London, 1980), p.123
18 Lieutenant Colonel John Gurwood, The Dispatches of Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington (John Murray, London,1838) vol VIII, p. 328
19 Gurwood, General Orders, p.585 and


2 Comments

  1. cavalrytales says:

    I’ve seen references to picket pins (and carbine bucket straps to hold them) but always wondered how they managed to hammer them in!
    Nice post 🙂

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