Monday, 25 May 2009

The French Invasion of 1810, by Harold Gerry, part 2

At Exeter, then in the afternoon of May 4th, the French deployed just to the east of the town, about 6,400 men with their 4 batteries massed centrally; the weaker of their light cavalry regiments guarding the minor bridge over the river about a mile to the north (this regiment played no part in the battle and is not included in the above numbers). The bridge and some houses were mined in readiness. Here the French were vigor­ously attacked at about 6.30 p.m. by just over 8,000 British with 3 batteries, under one of the divisional commanders General J.Cruickshank, in the absence of Major-General Popkess on other business.

The French were relying on the fairly open ground near the town to cause heavy losses to the British with gunfire. The four batteries had a clear field of fire from the ridge on the town edge. The British decided to move in wide arcs round the French flanks, so that the French could not decisively deal with both attacks at once, and to link the two attacks only with a squadron of heavy cavalry and a Guards regi­ment in the centre. They kept their inferior batteries screened behind their left wing attack until they got within range of the French big guns.

The French guns concentrated in the meantime on this left wing infantry, causing over 400 casualties, mainly among militia. Then the British guns began firing on the French guns, and the two largely cancelled each other out until nearly dusk.

When the British left got close enough, the French right attacked, cavalry cir­cling round along the road. A much-battered militia unit actually beat off a cuir­assier attack, but the light infantry broke when charged by Saxon light dragoons, and the rout carried away another militia unit. The dragoons cut down large numbers of fugitives, and only halted at nightfall. Meanwhile the cuirassiers recovered, and this time routed both the battered militia infantry which had been their first target, and then a line regiment. So the French had carried all before them on this wing, except along the river, where a British Line infantry regiment broke first the French Light infantry and then their supporting Line. The southern half of the town was jammed with French fugitives just as darkness came down.

The British right wing attack meanwhile had circled cautiously well away from the grand battery, leaving their attack almost too late in fact. The infantry went in first, but were immediately charged by one French infantry regiment and routed. So, about ten minutes from nightfall, it seemed that the French had won a notable victory all round. Then came sudden disaster. The British desperately flung in both Household cavalry regiments in a last attempt. The French infantry stood the charge, but were borne down in the melee by the weight of the heavies, and routed back into Exeter. Supporting companies in the houses discouraged British pursuit to some ex­tent, but Guards infantry were now in the outskirts. Calling his own cavalry back from pursuit, Ney brought his rearguard over the bridge and abandoned the main part of the town, blowing the bridge behind him.

So the Exeter area remained disputed, although the British had at least the satisfaction of clearing the east side of the river. The French had the satisfaction of inflicting 1,200 casualties on the British for the loss of 480. The British be­gan probing for a way round the Exeter area.

Relief of Plymouth and fall of Taunton (May 5th-9th).

Before dawn on 5th May, the main bulk of the English (Exeter) western army marched round the flank of the French to get on to the west bank of the Exe, leaving two militia regiments and artillery as a screen in the city and along the river. They advanced half-way across Devon during the 5th and 6th, sending a strong flying column ahead which met and chased back (into Launceston), a French force of about 2 regiments which was marching to reinforce the Exeter French. The single regiment of French watching Plymouth hastily draw back over the Tamar, and the flying column dropped a further regiment into Plymouth to strengthen the garrison, itself returning to Exeter, where the western army re-assembled on the 8th, to find that on the 7th the French had cautiously pushed across the river and driven the 2 militia rearguard units back along the Taunton road. On the 9th the English marched 24 miles to Wellington, and halted there about 4 p.m. when they heard that an hour earlier the French had driven the garrison from Taunton in a brisk action.

A force of 3 South Midlands militia infantry and 1 cavalry regiment had force-marched from Bristol to join the militia retreating from Exeter. The town was just over half-fortified, quite open along the river. The French laid down a heavy artillery barrage on the isolated westernmost redoubt and went straight into the attack.

The light redoubt guns began to lose crewmen quickly, the English withdrew them to the bridge and held up the French beyond the river for half an hour. Three English regiments had cross­ed the river origin­ally to try and beat the detached French before they could be helped from the main force, but came back and through the town at about 2 p.m. (action started at 1 p.m.) when it became obvious that the main French attack was going to succeed, and that the extreme French right wing was not only the weak part of the French army but lay on the best line of retreat for the militia, towards Lyme Regis and Dorchester. So whilst the Somerset militia (already battered at Exeter on the 4th), held the defences between the Wellington and Lyme roads, all the rest of the garrison sallied out through the Lyme and Bristol exits and attacked the French right. The leading regiment ran into a storm of roundshot from horse batteries and suffered from light infantry harassing, and broke, but the remainder swept down in column, routed the French horse guns and a light infantry battalion off the field, and made the Devon republican battalion run. Luck ran with the English militia, and just deserted the French in this last part of the action. So the English escaped south to the Hatch Beauchamp Woods, and the French occupied Taunton.

The militia lost 960 casualties, the French 360, out of about 4,800 and 7,000 strengths respectively.

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