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Did the 11 Light Dragoons Run Away?

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Did the 11 Light Dragoons Run Away?

Postby 84thfoot » December 5th, 2017, 7:07 pm

An interesting article from the Leeds Intelligencer 3rd August 1801 -

Private William Cowdell a private in the 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons, quartered at Wakefield was indicted for the murder of John Roper in Wakefield on 19th July 1801 – The two men were drinking on Saturday evening at the Malt Shovel, in Northgate, Wakefield till nine o’clock, or between nine and ten, in the back parlour of the said house; that there was a back way out, by which they entered; but found it, on their wishing to go out the same way, fastened. There was no other way but through the kitchen, where the prisoner, and comrade of his were drinking. On their opening the door the prisoner was singing a song; he did not exactly remember the words, but it ended something about “God save the King” that the deceased with the door in his hand, said in the conclusion of the verse “but they say you ran away”; and immediately went into the street. The prisoner followed, and immediately struck him on the head, which made him stagger: he then struck him on the throat, when the deceased fell lifeless into the arms of the witness,
Squire Hanson – Deposed that he went to the Malt Shovel, to look for his brother; that not finding him, he stopped some time with R. Downing and the deceased; and on passing through the room on their way out, the prisoner was singing, in the middle of the verse, which concluded with “success to the Regiment and God save the King” upon which Roper said “But they say you ran away” the prisoner then followed the deceased into the street and struck him; (this witness said three times); the last blow on the throat killed him. – On his cross examination he said he could not have sworn to the prisoner on the following Sunday morning, but on seeing him that night he perfectly recognised him.
Lieut. Col. Thomas of the Eleventh Light Dragoons, was next called, who gave the prisoner a most excellent character for humanity, sobriety and soldier like conduct. Being asked by Mr Raines, counsel for the prisoner, if there could be a greater provocation offered to a soldier, then reflecting on the courage of the Regiment to which he belonged or himself individually; he said, certainly not: That the Regiment had been publicly thanked for their services in Holland, by his Royal Highness the Duke of York.
Major Anderson, gave the prisoner the same character; as did Captains Brown and Mills.
Mr Raines, in the course of their examination, begged his Lordship’s permission for Captain Brown’s reciting a particular act of bravery and gallantry performed by the Eleventh Light Dragoons, which though it had nothing to do with the case before him, yet went to prove the injustice of attaching cowardice to the Regiment.
Captain Brown, then related the affair as follows, he deposed, that he had the honour to serve in a detachment of seventy men commanded by Major Cumming; that they met with a body of three hundred of the enemy, that they had a severe engagement, drove the French back, with a loss on their own side of thirty-five killed and wounded.
There were several officers in court ready to give the prisoner a good character.
The Judge in his charge to the jury, said that the prisoner undoubtedly received the greatest provocation a soldier could receive; but that no provocation could justify one man assaulting another. That if they believed the witnesses, whom he said appeared to him to give very correct evidence, they must find him guilty – They therefore accordingly found a verdict – Guilty, Manslaughter


Nice to see that he was supported by his Officers, keen to protect the reputation of the Regiment; I am not certain as to what action this refers but Major Cumming's was in charge of a squadron under the Duke of York in October 1799

Anybody a better idea?
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Re: Did the 11 Light Dragoons Run Away?

Postby 84thfoot » December 5th, 2017, 7:33 pm

William Cowdell was not discharged but recommended for Chelsea Pension 1st February 1802 at York Barracks from asthma after his horse had plunged into a canal while on active service in Holland making him unfit for further service.

He was 29 from Claybruff, Nottingham and had served 9 years with the Regiment
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Re: Did the 11 Light Dragoons Run Away?

Postby jf42 » December 14th, 2017, 12:12 pm

84thfoot wrote: Nice to see that he was supported by his Officers, keen to protect the reputation of the Regiment; I am not certain as to what action this refers but Major Cumming's was in charge of a squadron under the Duke of York in October 1799

Anybody a better idea?


Thank you for posting this anecdote. It is an intriguing episode, for several reasons.

The 11th Light Dragoons [11LD] were indeed with the Duke of York on the Helder expedition to Holland. The action referred to would appear to be that which took place on 6th October 1799 as reported in the Historical Record Of The Eleventh, Or The Prince Albert's Own, Regiment Of Hussars : (1843), p.32.

‘The enemy's posts at Beverwyck and Wyck- op-Zee were attacked on the 6th of October, on which occasion two squadrons of the regiment, commanded by Major Henry John Gumming, had their post on the right of a body of Russians, and the other two squadrons under Captain James Wallace Sleigh on the left, in front of Beverwyck. The action was continued with sanguinary obstinacy until night, when the enemy retreated, leaving the British and Russians masters of the field; and His Royal Highness expressed in orders, his “approbation of the" conduct of the two squadrons of the Eleventh Dragoons, attached to the Russian Infantry." The regiment lost ten men killed, and several wounded.’

This was the regiment's most costly encounter with the French in the war so far (I haven't as yet been able to see the Dispatches for this action in the London Gazette to confirm the total casualties reported in the court case).

Explaining the victim’s enigmatic, and fatal, statement “But they say you ran away” is more complicated.

I believe it most probably relates to Britain's previous campaign in the Low Countries in 1793-95, when the Duke of York’s army, having failed to prevent the French conquest of the Netherlands, was forced to beat an ignominious retreat into Germany (The Duke himself had already been called home to carry the can for the debacle).

During a rearguard action in the polders of the river Waal, a piquet of 11 LD hurriedly withdrew from an exposed outpost position forward of the village of Geldermalsen. In the process, under circumstances that aren't clear, they became separated from two light guns in their charge, which fell into the hands of the attacking French. The guns were quickly recovered by the British, however, and the episode glossed over in official accounts, but in later years, a certain ambiguity can be detected in references to this episode, with mention of the 11 LD, of the retreat and of the temporary loss of the guns, being kept tactfully vague, and with the emphasis placed more on their recovery. It is nonetheless possible to detect in phrases like “the unfortunate skirmish” that something amiss had occurred over which a discreet veil was being drawn

It wasn’t until the 1840s, fifty years after the battle, that accounts of the action were recorded by two Black Watch veterans that clearly identified the 11th Light Dragoons as the regiment that lost the guns at Geldermalsen. While claiming credit for their former regiment as the corps that recovered the guns, the memoirs included descriptions which, if accurate, help explain the veil of discretion that had floated over the battle since 1795- (and continued to do so until 1896 when the text of the Black Watch memoirs were finally published in full). This excerpt is perhaps the most damning:

“The 11th Light Dragoons were stationed in front of the village to cover the retreat of the picquets with their two field-pieces, and instead of resisting the charge of the French cavalry, they immediately retreated at a furious Rate to the rear of the village, leaving the guns in possession of the French cavalry, who commenced dragging them off.”
(Ronald Cameron, Pensioner, Late 42nd Royal Highlanders, Campbelltown (Ardersier) January 1845)

What is so interesting about the Leeds Intelligencer story is that it is the first indication I have seen that the story of the ‘unfortunate skirmish’ had become common knowledge so soon, and that sensitivity on the subject was keenly felt by soldiers of 11LD. It is true that a general slur on personal courage and regimental conduct, coupled with the two failed campaigns in the Netherland, might have stung William Cowdell to violence, whether in his cups or no. However, it seems to me that the jibe “But they say you ran away” is more specific, and as I have outlined above, reading between the lines, the business of the lost guns seems likely to have been the provocation that lead to John Roper’s unfortunate death.

In answer to your question, "Did the 11th Light dragoons run away?"- the story is a good deal more complicated than the version I have sketched out here. Certainly, there is a version of the battle of Geldermalsen that says they did run, and of course losing guns, even temporarily, was an embarrassment in any case. However, I feel there is another version where something can be said in defence of the 11LD.

It has to be said the record of the 11 LD continued without blemish, and regarding the events of January 5th 1795, they maintained a dignified silence. The reputation of the veterans of Egypt, Salamanca and Waterloo, was sound enough for them to escort Prince Albert to London for his wedding to Queen Victoria in 1840, and be granted the title 'Prince Albert's Own', with the Prince Consort as their Colonel and, after converting to a Hussar regiment resplendent in crimson overalls, to become one of the smartest regiments in the army; an added reason, perhaps, for suppressing talk of "retreating at a furious rate."

Another curious element in this story is the snatch of song that is referred to, "success to the Regiment and God save the King.” This is very similar to a line in the regimental song of the 15th King's Light Dragoons, 'Sahagun':

'With a full flowing bowl now "we’ll drink and we’ll sing,
'Success to the Fifteenth; and 'God Save the King.'


That might not be particularly remarkable were it not for the fact that the battle of Sahagun, celebrated in the song, was still seven years in the future, and the lyrics are very specific, so that it is not, on the face of it, a question of a standard drinking song where one regimental name or number might be substituted for another. If there was an earlier soldiers' song on which 'Sahagun' was based, I have not yet been able to find it.

This leads me to a final, curious footnote, which is that not only were the 15th King's Light Dragoons with the 11 LD in the Netherlands, serving in Sir Robert Laurie's Light Cavalry brigade but they were, apparently, also present at Geldermalsen. Indeed, the reference to the 'unfortunate skirmish,' mentioned earlier, comes from an early 'Historical Sketch' of the 15 KLD published in 1800, whose author not only claimed that the 15 KLD were present at Geldermalsen but that it may have been them who saved the day:

"The 15th were most useful and arrived at the critical time in the unfortunate skirmish happened at Gelder-maison [SIC]; they arrived in time to charge some French Hussars who insulted the infantry, and no doubt can be entertained of their being instrumental in the recovery of the curricle-guns attached to the Light-brigade."

As far as I know, that version of events appears in no other source, although it is quoted in later histories of the 15th KLD/KH. Certainly, no one seems to have told the Black Watch!

Once again, thanks for posting this cutting. Should you be interested, if you type 'Geldermalsen' or 'curricle' into the NWF search engine, you will find more extended accounts of Geldermalsen on a couple of threads here.
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Re: Did the 11 Light Dragoons Run Away?

Postby jf42 » December 14th, 2017, 5:10 pm

I have just done my sums and calculated that Cowdell could have served in both of the Netherlands campaigns, joining around the time the 11th LD departed from Blackwall to Flanders, as part of the Light Cavalry Brigade. If so, he would have seen some hard fighting, particularly in the spring of 1794, when the 11th performed "prodigies of valour" against the French in actions such as 'Beaumont' & 'Willems' for which, many years later, the 11th claimed and were granted battle honours. Each of the four Light Dragoons (7th,11th, 15th, & 16th), sent 2 squadrons a-piece to form composite regiments, so it is not definite that Cowdell was in there in 1795. The muster rolls might offer a clue.
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Re: Did the 11 Light Dragoons Run Away?

Postby jf42 » December 15th, 2017, 8:20 pm

I forgot I had the relevant Army List for the 11th LD in 1795

For the officers named in the article, all were in the regiment in 1795. These are the ranks they held.

Major G.Th.T. Thomas
Capt. Hen. John Cumming
Lieut John Anderson
Lieut Thomas Browne
Lieut John Mills
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