Napoleonic Archive Volume 14 – Memoirs of the 4th Dragoons

Napoleonic Archive Volume 14 – Memoirs of the 4th Dragoons

Published by Ken Trotman Publishing November 2023

The Diary of Lt Charles Dudley Madden

Letters from the Peninsular written
by Lieutenant Norcliffe

Journal of Lt William Light
from 7 April 1809 to 11 April 1814

Letters of Lieutenant William Cowper Coles


The 4th (Queen’s Own) Dragoons was raised in 1685 and fought in the Battles of Steenkerque in 1692 and Landen the following year. It also fought at the Battle of Almansa in Spain in 1707 during the War of the Spanish Succession; and Dettingen, Fontenoy and Laufeldt during the War of Austrian Succession.

The 4th Dragoons served in the Peninsular War from April 1809 without a break, until the end of the war in April 1814. The 4th throughout this war was a ‘Heavy’ Dragoon Regiment, seeing service at the Battle of Talavera, then spending a long period of service with General Hill’s corps in the vicinity of Badajoz. Half of the regiment was seriously involved in attempting to protect the infantry at the bloody Battle of Albuera, an incident that is often overlooked in histories of the battle.

More famously, when in the brigade of General Le Marchant, they formed part of the Heavy Cavalry Brigade charge, which devastated the French troops. They also saw action at the Battle of Vitoria and at Toulouse.

With the end of the war, the regiment was sent to Ireland and was not called upon during the campaign of 1815. In 1819, while still in Ireland, the regiment was renamed as Light Dragoons and their uniform changed from red to blue.

Despite this prolonged period of service in the peninsula, there are remarkably few memoirs published from this regiment. The Life and Letters of Colonel William Light published in Australia in 1937 only supplies a brief sketch of his Peninsular service, without publishing any letters or journal of the period.

Similarly James Lunt’s Scarlet Lancer published in 1964, covers the life of Lieutenant John Luard in brief detail, but again fails to publish any of his journals or letters; this oversight was partly rectified by Clive Cohen’s Brothers in Arms which published snippets from the letters of John Luard and his brother George.[1] However, it still only published less than ten percent of the journals and letters written by the Luard brothers. The editor has been in contact with the current Luard family and he intends to publish the entire collection of letters and journal of the Luards in the next year or so, but it is far too large for this volume and may well need two volumes!

Indeed, the only full but short set of contemporary letters published from the 4th Dragoons are those of Captain Thomas Fenton, who transferred to the Scots Greys in 1815; these were published in 2010 by this editor[2].

Collating the letters and journals I have yet to publish, I realised that I had transcribed no less than four very large collections of letters and journals from officers of the 4th Dragoons and that an entire book could be allocated to them, a belated tribute to a very long serving regiment in Wellington’s campaigns.

The journal of Lieutenant Charles Madden covers the entire period from their sailing to Spain in April 1809, including the Battle of Albuera, until August 1812, when he returned to England and resigned his commission.

Lieutenant Norcliffe Norcliffe’s (yes that was his name!) letters begin with the regiment’s arrival in Portugal until November 1812 having served at the Battles of Talavera, Busaco, Albuera, Usagre & Salamanca, at the last of which he was severely wounded and returned home to regain his health and not returning to the peninsula.

The Journal kept by Lieutenant William Light from April 1809 to April 1814 covers of course the entire period the regiment was in the peninsula; however Light did serve periods with his regiment, but was also often used as a scout or ‘Exploring Officer’, mapping and carrying out reconnaissances or in liaison missions with the Spanish armies, but always carried out in full uniform to avoid being treated as a spy.

Finally we have the lively letters of Lieutenant William Cowper Coles who initially served in the 40th Foot as an Ensign and Lieutenant, before transferring to the 4th Dragoons on 16 November 1809 and becoming a Captain on 19 November 1812 in the 12th Light Dragoons. All of his extant letters are included here from his entire service up until the summer of 1817 in France, for which I make no apology, indeed his letters from the Buenos Aries debacle are truly fascinating, if nothing to do with the 4th Dragoons.

I trust that the reader finds this volume as fascinating as I did and it helps to bring the service of a largely forgotten regiment into the fore, where it richly deserves to be.

[1] Published in the Society for Army Historical Research Special Publication no.17, published in 2015 in cooperation with the National Army Museum.

[2] Republished in Napoleonic Archive volume 7 by Ken Trotman Publishing in 2022.