The march of the Light Brigade to Talavera and The formation of the Light Division. Based on extracts from- A short history of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 1741-1922 for the young soldiers of the Regiment. ByR.B. Crosse
Although neither the 43rd nor the 52nd bear Talavera as an honour on the Colours, the battle fought there on July 27th and 28th, 1809, deserves more than mere mention here, firstly, because each regiment was represented at it by a company which had been formed from details left at the base when Sir John Moore's army advanced in the autumn of 1808, and secondly, because the march of the 1st Battalions 43rd, 52nd, and 95th—now a light brigade under Craufurd—to the battlefield is probably the finest example of march discipline on record.
The 2nd Battalion 43rd and the 1st Battalion 52nd, who had fought at Corunna, had landed at Portsmouth on January 25th, 1809, after which both Battalions of the 43rd were quartered at Colchester, and both Battalions of the 52nd at Deal, where the strength of the 1st Battalions rose rapidly to 1,200 each.
The fact that at least half this number were militia recruits, and that the Light Brigade practically consisted of young soldier battalions, makes all the more remarkable the feat of marching performed only six months (including one month on board ship) after the very depleted regiments had returned from the Corunna campaign.
The brigade reached Lisbon at the end of June, and proceeded up the Tagus in boats for several days, beginning its forward march from Vallada on July 6th. In the absence of orders requiring him to push on at speed, and in order to accustom the men to the heavy loads they carried, General Craufurd, with whom the health and comfort of his troops was always the first consideration, advanced by short marches until July 27th, when the brigade bivouacked near Naval Moral. On the 28th the march was resumed at 3 a.m. to avoid the heat of the day, and at 11 a.m., after a twenty-four mile march, the brigade halted at Oropesa. Here the young soldiers realized why the water in their bottles ought to be regarded as the property of the company and not of themselves, and saw the wisdom of the order that it must not be used without permission ; for, no water being obtainable, some of that which they carried had to be used for cooking, and the rest had to last them until the next day.
During this halt, and while the brigade was at dinner, stragglers from Talavera, wounded, and fugitive civilians, spreading rumours that the British Army had been defeated, and that the French were advancing, began to pass through the bivouacs, and Craufurd learned that a battle had begun.
Determined to push on with all possible speed, the General called on the brigade for a supreme effort, saying that he would not halt till he reached the battlefield. The response was such as is ensured to a commander so trusted by his troops. Desiring the Commanding Officers to leave behind all men who could not complete the distance of about twenty-eight miles—a party of fifty from the brigade—he ordered the march to be resumed at 3 pm., and seizing every cart he met on the way, to bring along sore-footed men, he led the brigade forward, halting only for two hours during the night.
At dawn on July 29th, the Army at Talavera heard bugles in the distance, and shortly afterwards the Light Brigade, in a closed-up, compact body, and amid loud cheering, crossed the battlefield of the day before and forthwith took over the outposts. Only seventeen men had fallen out.
The total length of the march, from Naval Moral to the position on the Alberche forward of Talavera, was 52 miles, performed in twenty-six hours, namely between 3 a.m. 28th, and 5 a.m. 29th July, and in the hottest part of a Spanish summer.
But the mere length of the march was not so remarkable as the splendid style in which the men did their work, arriving as they did at its close, fresh as if they had only done an ordinary day's march, and ready for anything. Let it also be remembered that each man's load included a musket or rifle, great-coat, blanket, pack, shoes, shirt, canteen, haversack, belts, bayonet or sword, and ammunition, or a total weight of from fifty to sixty pounds.
The Light Brigade then took part in Lord Wellington's withdrawal from Talavera. This became necessary owing to his finding himself opposed to a French army of overwhelming numbers, with a possibility of being attacked in rear.
A period of marching followed, broken by three months in cantonments at Campo Mayor, after which General Craufurd's command was on the left bank of the Coa until March, 1810.
The formation of the Light Division. A General Order in the Field dated February 22nd, 1810, attached two battalions of Portuguese light troops to the Light Brigade, which was to be known henceforward as the Light Division. These, with the Chestnut Troop, " A" Battery Royal Horse Artillery, under Captain Ross, completed that formation of which the nucleus had been Sir John Moore's Shorncliffe Brigade, and of which Sir William Napier wrote :—" Six years of warfare could not detect a flaw in their system, nor were they ever matched in courage or skill."
A further General Order of August 4th, 1810, reorganized the Light Division in two brigades, as follows:-- 43rd, 3rd Cacadores, and four companies 95th in one ; 52nd, 1st Cacadores and four companies 95th in the other.
Meanwhile in June, 1809, the 2nd Battalions of the 43rd, 52nd, and 95th were formed into another Light Brigade at Shorncliffe, whence they marched to Deal, and there embarked for the expedition to Walcheren. After taking part in the reduction and surrender of Flushing, they were withdrawn, with the rest of the force," owing to a severe outbreak of Walcheren fever, returning to England in September " with nearly every man on the sick list," the 43rd to be quartered at Colchester, and the 52nd at Shorncliffe, to recruit for their 1st Battalions.