“YOU ARE ALL WORTHY OF MY OLD GUARD;
I ACKOWLEDGE YOU AS MY BRAVEST CAVALRY.”
(NAPOLEON TO THE POLISH LIGHT HORSE)
It happened on 30 November 1808.
It was necessary to devote a chapter of “The Life of Napoleon” to this episode as by this feat of arms, which opened the road to Madrid, the Polish cavalry serving in the Grand Army earned eternal fame.
On 23 November, at Tudela (north-west of Saragossa), Marshal Lannes had just won a brilliant victory over General Castaños who lost 3,000 men who were killed or wounded, 2 standards and 26 guns. His victory was so remarkable, that in a letter he addressed to the Emperor on the same day, Lannes wrote:
“Since I have been waging war, never have I seen a rout as complete as this.”
The Spanish Army which had been put to full flight was in such a state of shock that Castaños had been obliged to inspect his troops simply to prove by his presence that he had not deserted as they believed. Their victory of Baylen had been short-lived.
Marshal Lannes who had been wounded in a serious riding accident before the battle and who was still suffering, had been forced to hand over his command to Moncey shortly after.
Yet the victory would have been even more decisive had Ney not arrived too late for the engagement, thus preventing the total destruction of the Spanish Army. While some of the Spanish survivors headed for Madrid, the others took refuge in Saragossa and Napoleon decided to send Moncey, who was temporarily replacing Lannes.
TWO ROADS TO MADRID
Nevertheless, Napoleon was determined to make the most of Lannes' victory by rapidly proceeding to Madrid while both flanks of his army continued to pursue and disperse the defeated Spanish survivors and stop them from joining up with the forces defending Madrid.
From Burgos there were two roads which led to the Spanish capital.
One passed through Valladolid and Segovia – this was the road taken by Marshal Lefebvre – the other, which was shorter and more direct, passed by Somosierra. This was the route that Napoleon decided to take.
Determined to leave nothing to chance, Napoleon established his general headquarters in the little town of Aranda. During the week he spent there, he was able to assess the enemy forces he would have to face: some twenty thousand men in all, a little more than half of whom were at Somosierra commanded by Brigadier-General Benito San Juan, who was a real soldier in the regular army and not a vile murderer of French prisoners of war.
A WELL-DEFENDED POSITION
Let us now study the scene where the battle of Somosierra, which belongs to the great but bloody legend of Napoleonic history was about to take place.
To debouch on the plain of Castile by following the route which Napoleon had chosen it was necessary to cross the difficult passage of the Somosierra Pass.
Situated at an altitude of 1,500 metres, the sole route available was a winding track following the arid rocky mountain-side. Worse still, there were three sharp bends following one another, each of which was an enemy stronghold.
In spite of his baby face,
Philippe de Ségur (1780-1873)
charged bravely with the
Polish Light Horse
The Spanish general, who had taken every advantage of the lay of the land, had arranged his defence in an echelon formation. Each of the bends along the road was defended by a battery of four guns and at the summit there was one last battery which was well-entrenched behind a parapet of earth and rock.
At the summit, on both sides of the track – which was two and a half kilometres long – a swarm of skirmishers were waiting in ambush and they were all the more determined as their commander had promised them “that not a single Frenchman would reach the pass”.
Taking the redoubt was obviously going to be a formidable task for the French.
If Napoleon remained so long at Aranda, it would appear that it was in the hope of finding a solution other than storming a position which would undoubtedly be costly in human lives. For a result which was doubtful.
Only the weather conditions – a dark overcast sky and fog in the valley - could be relied upon to provide a relative but very temporary form of protection for the attacking troops. Yet it was these same weather conditions that prevented Major Lejeune, one of Berthier's aides-de-camp, who had been sent out on a reconnaissance mission from locating the enemy positions. He had only returned with the conviction that the area was not deserted as he had heard the sound of voices.
THE INFANTRY ATTACKS FIRST
It has often been written and implied that the Somosierra Pass was captured by the cavalry alone and if it is indeed true that the cavalry action was, as always, the most spectacular and in this case decisive by its brutality and suddenness, the role played by the infantry should not be forgotten either. For how could anyone in command have been stupid enough to launch an attack on a position which was as well defended as this by throwing forward his cavalry without any other support?
Marshal Victor and his I Corps had just joined Napoleon and it was therefore his infantry that launched the first attack on the road leading to Madrid : 9ème Regiment of Light Infantry and 24 ème and 96 ème Regiments of the Line.
Marshal Victor (1764-1841) who was to win fame later during the Russian campaign
The first two marched on both sides of the road while the third marched in the centre. The 96 ème was preceded by six pieces of artillery commanded by General Sénarmont.
On the mountain top, the Spaniards had placed their skirmishers to the left and to the right and had positioned their best troops in tiers among the rocks near the summit.
Napoleon halted beneath a tree where his grenadiers lit a fire of vine shoot for him. The position he occupied, however, was far from safe and, as usual, he was near the line of fire and had no shelter from the Spanish cannon-balls which were flying over his head and landing next to him.
On the track, the men caught in a deadly cross-fire were falling. And marching. Slowly. Too slowly for Napoleon, although the first position held by the Spanish had by now been taken by French infantry.
COULD THE CAVALRY FORCE
THEIR WAY THROUGH?
Major Kozietulski was wounded during the first charge
Napoleon, far from blaming his troops for the slow progress they were making knew, however, that for this kind of operation to succeed the enemy had to be taken by surprise.
At that moment he decided to send a cavalry reconnaissance party to determine whether or not it was possible to force a passage by the route through the valley. This mission was entrusted to Colonel (and future General) Piré, whose full name was Hippolyte-Marie-Guillaume de Rosnyvinen, Comte de Piré. A former Chouan (an irregular Bourbon partisan who had maintained resistance against the Republican and Bonapartist governments), he had rallied to the First Consul when the latter had restored civil peace (and this must surely rate as one of his greatest achievements) in the departments of the West of France after they had been at war against the French Republic for years.
Piré left with his cavalry which was promptly repulsed by a hail of case-shot. Upon reporting back to Napoleon, he declared:
There are several versions of Napoleon's furious reply, the most famous of which is undoubtedly:
“I do not know that word.”
He then summoned his personal escort on duty that day. On 30 November, it was the Polish Light Horse, a squadron which had only recently (a year ago) been incorporated into the Imperial Guard. The infantry had been brought to a halt? Then the cavalry, even few in number, had a chance of succeeding and as the road was narrow there was no need for large numbers. The squadron on duty should be enough. These cavalrymen, who had all been recruited among the Polish aristocracy by Napoleon, were commanded by General Count Krazinski. Although he was ill, he had remained with his regiment, but had left a French officer, Colonel Dautencourt in charge of operations.
OF NOBLE BIRTH AND FINE APPEARANCE
These men, all of them young, were a fine sight with their crimson schapskas topped by a long plume and decorated with a brass helmet plate which represented a rising sun with brass beams, the centre of which was in silver and embossed with the Imperial monogram, “N”, and with this they wore dark blue kurtkas with white aiguillettes.
They looked like heroes out of a picture. Yet these heroes who had never seen action before and had no experience of warfare other than military exercises were about to be asked to accomplish a mission which was highly dangerous - even for experienced troops. But their faith in Napoleon and their determination to prove that the trust he had placed in them by incorporating them in the Imperial Guard was justified was about to make them perform a miracle.
According to some sources, Napoleon was supposed to have said:
“Storm that for me at full gallop.”
But does it really matter whether these were his exact words?
The Light Horsemen heard the order. One of their officers, Major Kozietulski, drew his sword, lifted it high above his head, and ordered:
“At a trot!”The horsemen set off, but the order, “At a trot”, must have seemed inadequate compared to the élan they felt and without stopping to consider their mission or the order they had just received, they set off at full gallop, wielding their swords above their heads.
General Count Krasinski
commanded the Polish Light
Horse squadron which had
recently been incorporated
into the Imperial Guard
The fantastic charge had just begun.
But a lot of blood was about to be shed and they were soon caught in the deadly fire of the Spanish gunners who didn't even have to take the trouble of aiming to hit their target and a third of the cavalrymen fell on the rocky ground. Among them, Kozietulski.
The survivors continued the tragic and magnificent charge at full gallop. The bugles called to close the ranks which were melting away under the cannon fire. Nothing seemed to stop the light horse. The honour of Poland was at stake in the face of the enemy. And the Emperor was watching them!
They suddenly irrupted among the smoke and cries knocking over the palisades which hid the cannon and served as shelter for the Spanish soldiers, cutting down the artillerymen on their guns with their swords.
General Lefebvre-Desnouettes (1773-1822) commanded the light cavalry of the Imperial Guard
It was a troop of superb and bloodstained fiends that the astounded and panic-stricken Spaniards saw surging amongst them.
DECORATED WITH THE LEGION OF
HONOUR BY THE EMPEROR IN PERSON
By the time they reached the summit, only one of the officers, Lieutenant Niegolewski, was still uninjured.
But not for long. As he was struggling to neutralize the last artillery battery still in action with the few remaining survivors still with him, his horse was killed beneath him by a cannon ball and he broke his leg. When they saw that one of the “fiends” was on the ground, the Spaniards attacked him ruthlessly and the young officer was shot him twice in the head before being stabbed eight times by a bayonet.
For the Spaniards defending the position, this last attack was too much.
Demoralized, the Spanish soldiers abandoned their centre and flanks and forgetting their duty and their number, they fled pursued by the light cavalrymen who were black with gunpowder, red with blood and mad with joy as they swept over the plateau with the chasseurs of the Imperial Guard led by General Lefebvre-Desnouettes who had just joined them.
The Polish Light Horse had just signed their oath of allegiance to Napoleon with their blood, and even later on when fortune changed, their loyalty was infallible as among the troops that accompanied Napoleon to the Island of Elba , there was a squadron of these brave Polish soldiers.
Miraculously, Niegolewski, who was still alive and lying on the ground when Marshal Bessières approached said:
“Your Grace, here are the cannon I captured, tell that to the Emperor!
But Bessières had no need to do so, as the Emperor arrived and bending over the young officer he gave him his own cross of the Legion of Honour. Niegolewski was the first of the Polish Light Horse to receive the decoration which at the time was a distinction of great prestige.
Decorated with the Legion of Honour by the Emperor in person!
The famous charge of Somosierra has often been represented.
This picture shows the inevitable monk brandishing a crucifix
to incite to slaughter (ARR)
Some forty-five years later, Niegolewski, still remembered that memorable day of 30 November 1808, when he wrote:
“May many young men have the pleasure of enjoying a day like this!”
This is, of course, perhaps difficult to understand nowadays.
The casualties: out of the five hundred cavalrymen – they were no more than that! - eighty-four were killed or wounded (another source mentions fifty-seven which seems very few). Not a single officer came through unscathed, and out of the eight officers, four were killed.
There was also a Frenchman among the wounded, one of Napoleon's aides-de-camp, Philippe de Ségur, who was later to become a member of the illustrious Académie Française.
The arrival of French infantry clinched the rout of the Spaniards.
THE SPANISH GENERAL MURDERED
BY HIS OWN SOLDIERS
Still fighting, although he was wounded, General Benito San Juan had thrown himself in the path of his fleeing soldiers and had - together with his officers - attempted to rally them. But the soldiers added barbarity to cowardliness and seized the hapless San Juan , tied him to a tree and murdered him.
The engagement at Somosierra cost the Spaniards ten standards, all their artillery, thirty ammunition wagons, all their baggage and the coffers of the regiments. They also lost a great many men who were killed or wounded, but their precise number was never established.
At dawn, on the day following this extraordinary feat, Napoleon assembled the survivors of the Polish Light Horse and taking off his hat, he proclaimed in front of the other troops:
“You are all worthy of my Old Guard. I acknowledge you as my bravest cavalry.”
A compliment they more than deserved: the road to Madrid was now open.
To be continued…