(This is Part 6 of a series. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)
At 2pm Wellington’s position on the ridge was in danger of being rolled-up. The advance of D’Erlon’s Corps had broken the brigades of his first line, east of La Haye Sainte; and the men of Picton’s Division in the second line found themselves hard pressed, their commander shot dead in the furious fighting. As the situation grew desperate, Wellington turned to his cavalry commander, Lord Uxbridge.
Lord Henry Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge, now ordered his two reserve brigades of heavy cavalry to charge d’Erlon’s approaching infantry.
Uxbridge had two superbly mounted and equipped brigades of heavy (shock) cavalry to throw against the advancing French. The 1st Brigade, also known as the Household Brigade, representing the British monarch’s personal mounted guard regiments, was composed of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), and the 1st (King’s) Dragoon Guards. These were the senior cavalry regiments in the British Army. The 2nd Brigade was known as the Union Brigade, as it was composed of a regiment from each of the three parts of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, and Ireland. These were the 1st Royal Dragoons, the 2nd Dragoons (‘Scots Greys’); and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons.
The British cavalry, while better mounted than any in Europe and possessing terrific individual weapon’s skills, were inexperienced and undisciplined. Wellington had little confidence in their ability to rally after a charge, or to maneuver to any advantage. While squadron-to-squadron the British could best any two of the French, their indiscipline was their undoing in larger cavalry battles:
“I considered our ( British ) cavalry so inferior to the French from the want of order, that although I considered one squadron a match for two French, I didn’t like to see four British opposed to four French, and as the numbers increased and order, of course, became more necessary I was the more unwilling to risk our men without having a superiority in numbers”.
In massed formation, the British cavalry were a one trick pony: capable of delivering only one all-out-devil-may-care charge, and little else. However, with the masses of blue and red shakos of d’Erlon’s fusiliers nearing the crest of the ridge, it was perhaps just the trick that was needed!
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