Saturday 9 September 2023

8e Régiment de Cuirassiers

 A squadron of the 8ème cuirassiers

Onwards, then with this project within a project – to produce a squadron of each of the 4 regiments of L’Heritier’s 11th Heavy Cavalry Division. The division was made up of two dragoon regiments – the 2nd and 7th – and two cuirassier regimets – the 8th and 11th. I feel I’ve come back to my origins – this obsession began as a child in the 1970s with Airfix cuirassiers charging Airfix highlanders.

French squadrons were commanded by a Chef d’escadron and comprised 2 companies, each led by a captain. L’Heritier’s cuirassiers (the 8th and 11th) were heavily involved at Quatre Bras and suffered significant casualties. It’s therefore difficult to imagine that either regiment was able to field more than 50-60% of it’s total strength at Waterloo two days later. Sources give a nominal strength of around 300 men divided into 3 squadrons, so that would mean the regiment had been reduced to maybe 3 squadrons of 50 men each at Waterloo. Therefore, the Perry figures shown here probably represent more like 2 squadrons on 18th June.

It was the 8ème cuirassiers who caused such carnage among Halkett’s brigade at Quatre Bras, taking a colour from the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Foot. Pattison of the 33rd Foot writes:

 "A large body of French cuirassiers…dashed in amongst them [the 69th], when a terrible sabring ensued.  One of the officers (Volunteer Clarke) who carried the regimental colours was hacked and cut in a fearful manner.  Notwithstanding this he preserved the standard; but the other colour was wrenched from the hands of the officer who bore it, and carried off as a trophy of success."

Looking at the casualties of the 69th, there is no obvious candidate for who the unfortunate unnamed officer was. Only one Ensign of the 69th was wounded – Edward Hodder – but he received his wound at Waterloo. Presumably, then, the Ensign who lost the King’s Colour, had the pole snatched from him but escaped the cuirassiers’ sabres. Trumpeter Jean Baptiste Charonnet of the 8ème describes the savage, frantic struggle:

“The three sides of the square of the 69th was literally marked out by the dead. In the middle of the square the Lieutenant-Colonel and the Colour bearer were lying on the ground making no movement, the latter still held the Colour in his hand, for which he was killed.  Cuirassier Henry jumped to the ground and snatched the Colour. In order to mount his horse as quickly as possible, he passed his precious trophy to Brigadier Borgnes who was close to him. Borgnes galloped away, taking the Colour with him, followed by Henry, who had been able to remount his horse. Borgnes arrived in front of the regiment, and was saluted by the Cuirassiers with loud cheering." (From Franklin's French Forces at QB)

It's interesting that Charonnet describes the Colour bearer of the 69th being killed – it’s possible that it was being carried by a lieutenant rather than an ensign, in which case a possible candidate is Lieutenant Edmund Wightwick, who died of his wounds the day after Quatre Bras - the only fatality among the junior officers of the 69th.

Of immeasurable help in this research has been this book by Olivier Lapray - I really cannot recommend it enough. This is a proper history book by a proper historian i.e. based on painstaking research unearthing new data from original sources (rather than, say, books on the subject which merely rehash the same oft-repeated memoirs and letters). This marvellous tome lists every officer who served in all 14 cuirassier regiments during the First Empire, and provides biographical info for each man. In addition to this colossal achievement, there are a wealth of wonderful illustrations – portraits, drawings, photos of original equipment, and very helpful charts and diagrams of formations and uniform distinctions.

The 8ème were commanded by Colonel Antoine Laurent Marie Garavaque who rode a black horse at Waterloo. 

All three Chef’s d’Escadron were wounded - Henry Guillaume de Bassoncourt at Quatre Bras, Pierre Bisson and Gabrielle Gadrad at Waterloo. Three lieutenants and four sous-lieutenants were also wounded, all of them except one at Quatre Bras.

Chef d'Escadron Henry Guillaume de Bassoncourt - wounded at Quatre Bras