Almost two hundred years ago on a cold misty morning on the 30th of November 1808 in Spain there took place one of the most remarkable and memorable cavalry charges in history. What made it so was the fact that the attackers were greatly outnumbered, attacking uphill against well positioned artillery batteries which for cavalry to attempt without massed artillery and infantry support was regarded at the time as totally futile and disastrous. The place was Somosierra in the Guadarrama Mountains north of Madrid.
The Emperor Napoleon had entered Spain at the head of 45,000 men to restore order after the Spanish Uprising which had seen Madrid back in the hands of the Spanish. To oppose him the Spanish had raised 21,000 troops under their commander in chief Don Benito San Juan General Inspector of Infantry and Cavalry who hoped to stop the French army before it reached Madrid. Although weaker, this Spanish army constituted a formidable barrier to the French advance. Knowing the weakness of his Corps San Juan prepared a plan of defending the Spanish capital by defending the Somosierra pass on the road to Madrid. From San Juan’s total force 9,000 men were dispatched to guard the Guadarrama Pass. Approximately 3,000 occupied an advanced post at Sepulveda and 9.000 men were on the hills around Somosierra.
Of the Spanish troops the regulars were well disciplined and brave and the artillery were also regarded as loyal and experienced and would defend their guns to the last. On the other hand the Spanish militia were unreliable and it was doubtful that they would stand in the face of a fierce attack with overwhelming numbers.
Don Benito San Juan prepared his defence positions well. He was supported in his efforts by the terrain of the Somosierra pass.
From open ground in the North a narrow road climbed 960 feet over a distance of 4 miles. For the first few miles the ascent was gentle but became steeper as the road entered an increasingly narrow defile between the mountains.
The road initially followed the east bank of the Duraton stream which flowed down the defile but then crossed a small stone bridge to the west bank and in its final mile and a quarter to the summit steadily wound it’s way past a series of spurs that jutted out from the mountains on either flank.
On the summit at an altitude of 4,700 feet stood the chapel –Ermitage de Nuesta Senora de la Soleda [Hermitage of Our Lady of Solitude]
From here the road began a more gradual descent South passing through the small village of Somosierra.
Don Benito San Juan prepared his defence well. Six guns were placed on the road, forming three batteries of two gunseach. The first battery of two 4pdr guns stood behind a stone bridge. The gunners were protected from infantry fire by a small earthwork. In front of the bridge and across the road a ditch had been dug as an obstacle to anyone wishing to advance.
Approximately 700m behind this first battery stood the second battery. About 1,000 militiamen took up positions on both flanks of the road while in reserve and on the summit stood 2,000 militiamen supported by a battery of 10 guns. In support the Line Infantry were deployed over the summit mainly on the road between Somosierra and Madrid.
Napoleon ordered General Savary to attack the town of Sepulveda with a brigade of the Imperial Guard on November 29th. This was General San Juan’s first line of defence.
The French were pushed back with considerable loss. As the French withdrew the Spanish garrison decided to abandon Sepulveda and retreated to Segovia without telling San Juan of their decision. This retreat proved to be a major blow in San Juan’s plans and the defence of Madrid.
This move in turn opened the way for Marshal Victor and his Corps to take the village of Bocaquillas at the foot of the pass. Napoleon spent the night near the village and drew up his plans for the attack the following morning.
Napoleons original intention was for General Ruffins Division to lead the way up the pass in three columns. The centre column would take the main road up the pass while the other two would act as flankers climbing the heights up the pass.
The Polish Light Horse arrived in the village of Cerjas de Abajo on the evening of the 29th of November and were immediately sent out to sentry duty with orders to capture and interrogate any Spaniard they found. As luck would have it they soon found a Spanish partisan who told them of San Juan’s defence of the Somosierra Pass, which they reported back to the Emperor.
Dawn broke on the 30th of November to a thick freezing fog. Both attacker and defender were unable to see each other because of the fog but the French knew of the Spanish plans because of their prisoner from the previous night.
The Emperor arrived at the foot of the pass shortly after Marshal Victor with his escort and duty squadron made up that day from the 3rd Squadron of the Polish Light Horse commanded that day by Capitaine Jan Kozietulski.
Arriving at Somosierra Napoleon sent a half squadron of Guard Chasseurs a Cheval along the road up the pass. The Chasseurs were fired on by two guns from the first Spanish battery and quickly withdrew.
At 8am battle commenced with the drums of the 96th sounding the advance as the regiment marched past the Emperor and into the pass. At the same time the 9th and the 24th Light Infantry regiments began their climb up the hills along the pass headed by screens of skirmishers. Because of the unseen musketry fire ahead and the fog the men flanking the advance column could not see thirty feet in front of them and immediately fell behind. The main assault was forced to creep along the valley floor up the pass under heavy musketry and artillery fire. By 11.30am Marshal Victor’s infantry had halted and slowly began to withdraw back down the pass.
The unenviable job of informing the Emperor of the withdrawal was given to Colonel Pire, Marshal Berthiers aide –de-camp. He tried to explain the reasons for the withdrawal saying that the attack up the pass was “impossible.”
The Emperor grew furious. He had hoped to take Madrid on the second anniversary of his Coronation and now he was being thwarted by a bunch of Spanish brigands.
“Impossible? I don’t know the meaning of the word!” the Emperor bellowed.
Annoyed with the lack of progress Napoleon then ordered Philippe de Segur one of his ADC’s to “Go at once, make my poles charge, make them take everything, or bring me back prisoners!”
According to the memoirs of de Segur he rode over to where the 3rd squadron of the Polish Light Horse stood and conveyed to Kozietulski the Squadrons commanding officer the Emperors command to attack! Everyone thought the Emperors order impossible to fulfil amongst them Pire and Montbrun commander of the Guard cavalry.
For the 3rd Squadron the Emperors order filled the troopers with pride at being entrusted to fulfil the Emperors orders and yet foreboding knowing what lay ahead. Unlike the regiments 1st Squadron which had seen action 4 months earlier at Medina del Rio Seco the 3rd had as yet been untried. It’s inexperience had been noted by Napoleon during a review at Bayonne and had been passed on to General de Brigade Antoinne –Jean Comte Dursene. Figures for the 3rd squadron vary between 125 [Toedwen]-216 [Bielecki]
It is not certain if the Emperor ordered the taking of only the first battery or all four. The first battery had caused a lot of problems for the French infantry ,the other batteries being hidden in the fog.
Raising his sabre Kozietulski ordered the squadron forward. As the squadron began to move Kozietulski ordered it to form by fours because of the narrowness of the road, with officers and file closers at intervals As they passed the Emperor he shouted “Polonais prenez moi ces canons!” [Poles take the cannons for me!] to this the poles shouted out “Vivat Cesarz!” [Vive l’Empereur!] With the fog screening their advance and 1km from the first battery the poles began to pick up their pace. The only way that a cavalry charge could succeed against entrenched artillery positions was to move rapidly, fan out near the battery and then attack it from it’s flanks but this was not possible in the given terrain. The pass was narrow and winding and prevented a full gallop. What made it worse was the fact that it was uphill. As the poles approached they were met by fire from skirmishers and then the first artillery salvo which came at about 300-400m. Canister hit the head of the column and caused death and confusion.
The column immediately became disorganized and halted. Horses trampled over the fallen bodies of those horses and men who had fallen. Some struggled with wounded and panicked horses.
It took several minutes for the poles to put some sort of order in their ranks while the Spanish artillery loaded their guns with solid shot and fired the second salvo. This ploughed into the head of the column
which now became a mangled mass of death and destruction. Capitaine Rudowski was hit by a musket ball and killed on the spot while those in the tail of the column dismounted.
The Poles had little in the way of options left to them, They could await the next rounds and death or they could regain order and hit the artillery batteries before they had time to reload… they chose the second option. Kozietulski urged his men forward and they sped their horses on to hit the first battery before it could fire. Upon reaching the battery no quarter was given as the Poles sabred the gunners and any supporting troops they could find.
Once again the Poles moved forward to the second battery, shrouded by fog and gun smoke. All order had now gone and instead a spurring mass of mounted troopers and unseated horses moved forward. This advance was met by cannon and musketry fire and brought death once again to the column.Lieutenant .Krzyzanowski was killed and Kozietulski had his horse go down under him hit by a musket ball. Kozietulski managed to dismount but was badly bruised and began to make his way back to the French lines.The command was taken up by Capitaine Dziewanowski who led the mass forward spurring the men on to take the second battery.
The poles continued towards the third battery which when it unleashed it’s salvo of death took off the head of lieutenant Rowicki. Capitaine Dziewanowski had his leg shattered and his arm broken in this confusion and riderless horses were seen thundering out of the smoke and the cries of the dead and dying were drowned by the noise of musketry and gunfire.
Those that survived reached the third battery and cut down gunners and supporting militia without mercy.
At this stage in the attack there was no visible command. Troopers, NCO’S shouted men forward towards the next battery in hope of reaching it before they themselves were hit. By this time there were only 30-40 Poles left who moved against the formidable battery of 10 guns on the summit which they were unaware was so strongly defended.
When this battery opened up most of the poles fell. Kraśinski leading his men forward was one of the first to be hit. The wounded began to stumble back towards the third battery and were overtaken by Lieutenant Niegolewski whose platoon rushed past them .There then took place stubborn fighting around the battery where the Spanish gunners fought to the last man defending their guns and the Poles also suffered heavily. They had taken the battery but few were left.
Niegolewski looked around and finding Sergeant Sokołowski shouted “Sokołowski! where are our boy’s?”- “All are Killed” came the reply. In fact along with sergeant Dączewski there were only 5-10men left.
Seeing the week state of the poles the Spaniards began to reinforce the fourth battery with infantrymen and militia. Niegolewski had his horse hit by a musket ball which brought it down pinning him to the ground. Lying there he was bayoneted 9 times by the enemy and took a blow to the head from a sabre. Recalling this event some years later in his memoirs Niegolewski wrote,
‘I sensed that I was fainting, yet continued to hear the noise that the Spaniards were making around me as they shouted A la derecha,a la derecha arriba ,arriba! [“up to the right up to the right”] I was then struck again, with nine bayonet thrusts. .I had my belt with my money taken from me and was left under my horse. The pain of these last wounds fully restored me to my senses. I dared not breathe, as I was surrounded by Spaniards and feared that I would be tortured to death, which was the usual fate of their prisoners. A short time afterwards I heard the growing sound of drums and shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ and I saw the other Polish squadrons and the Chasseurs a cheval of the Guard emerge.”
Trooper Walenty Zwierkowski who was in the 1st squadron wrote about what he saw on the summit around the fourth battery.
“Dead or wounded poles and horses so obstructed the pass that we could not go through it as quickly as we wanted, but at last we reached the remnants of the 3rd squadron. From that moment, the Spaniards were so seized with panic and terror that they abandoned everything and we were able to finish them off without suffering further losses, for the French Infantry had already crowned the heights of Somosierra.”
The fourth battery was recaptured.
The charge had lasted some 7 minutes.
The poles had suffered heavy casualties. According to Pierre Dautancourt the Major of the Polish regiment of Light Horse in his report 57 were killed and wounded while others put this figure at up to 100.
After about 15 minutes voltigeurs of the 96th Line Regiment reached the summit. Here they found Niegolewski and brought him to rest near captured cannons where French doctors took care of his wounds.
Niegolewski says of this… “I wanted to raise my head but could not do so. As I could breathe easily, I began to hope that I was not yet going to die.I therefore started calling ,and knowing that people give more attention to a capitaine than a lieutenant, I shouted that I was a capitaine and begged them to pull me from under my horse. Neither the Chevau-Legers nor the chasseurs heard my voice, as it had become so weak.
But the French voltigeurs immediately arrived with shouts of ‘Hold on, it’s going to be fine, comrade!’ They released me from my horse, carried me, as I requested, to beneath the guns of the fourth battery and covered me with coats. My wounds were dressed by two doctors, but began to bleed again after they left.
Some soldiers who had lost their horses gathered around me.’
The voltigeurs were followed by Marshal Bessieres. With him arrived several companies of French Voltigeurs and more Poles. They were sent along the highway in pursuit of the retreating Spanish army and they were followed by further infantry regiments.
Napoleon rode up the road to the summit with General Ruffin’s division to view for himself the results of his orders and was shocked to see the carnage.
The Emperor stopped when he came across Niegolewski lying beside the road. Niegolewski is reported to have said “there are your cannons sire!”
Napoleon then ordered the road cleared of dead men and horses. Ambulances picked up the living while sappers threw the dead men and horses into the ravines without a thought of ceremony to quickly clear the road.
Capitaine Jean Coignet ,a French Line officer was shocked at this sight.
Two days after the battle Dezydery Chłapowski, a Polish officer assigned to the Emperors staff and later to serve in the Polish Light-Horse passed over the battlefield “… there were still several bodies of Polish Light horsemen in the snow… which continued to cover the summit of Somosierra. We stopped for half an hour in the village of Somosierra, where we found some severely wounded men who had not yet been transported. They told us about the charge by Dziewanowski’s squadron,claiming all the officers and over half the men had been killed… They assumed that Lieutenant Niegolewski would also have died, as he had been badly wounded. While we were there,ambulances came to take the rest of the wounded to Madrid..”
The wounded and dying poles were brought to a makeshift hospital in Aranjuez where they received the most basic of treatment for their wounds. Niegolewski was to recover fully from his wounds. Kozietulski later recalled that he almost starved while awaiting medical care. While in hospital they were visited by General Duroc and Napoleon. As Jan Dziewanowski lay dying, General Duroc awarded him his Legion of Honour..
The bulk of the Polish Light Horse pursued the retreating Spaniards towards Madrid supported by the Guard Chasseurs a cheval and Houssaye’s division of dragoons. This action prevented the Spaniards from regrouping at Robregordo and allowed the cavalry to take additional trophies. Although only 150 to 200 Spaniards were taken at the Somosierra pass a further 2,000 – 3,000 were taken during the persuit.
On December the 1st Napoleon ordered a parade for forty of the survivors. Kozietulski ‘s men were drawn up in line for inspection, most with arms in slings and with bloodied bandages. As most were unable to ride they were supported in the saddle by members of the Emperors personal Guard. Napoleon proceeded to give out sixteen Legion of Honour medals amongst those decorated was NCO Jakub Dąbczewski for being the first to reach the summit and the fourth battery. Niegolewski was awarded his Legion of Honour almost three months after the battle, on March 10th 1809. Following the award ceremony Napoleon turned towards the poles, doffed his bicorne hat and shouted for all to hear
“You are worthy to belong to my Old Guard. Honour to the Bravest of the Brave!”
The Poles had been promoted from the Young Guard past the Middle Guard to the Old Guard of veterans.
The poles wept with pride as they were helped back to their beds.
The charge of the Polish Light Horse aroused enthusiasm and pride in Poland for the Imperial cause.
Paul de Bourgoing the son of the French minister to the King of Saxony was in Warsaw when the news of the victory broke.
‘The bulletin describing the glorious part that the [poles] had taken in the battle of Somosierra caused a big sensation. Poland’s foremost families had their representatives in these brilliant squadrons…. The military youth of Poland , with whom I lived, was stimulated by these accounts and could barely contain a noble impatience to fight’
Madrid fell to the French on December 2nd.
The Thirteenth Bulletin of the French Army praised the poles for what they did at Somosierra.
Guns, flags. muskets, soldiers –all were taken destroyed or captured. The [Polish] Regiment has covered itself with glory”.
The charge would live on in the history, hearts and minds of the Polish nation testifying to its bravery and courage in the face of overwhelming odds striving for a recreated Poland.