The army was immediately roused by Wellesley following Landsheit’s report, and two brigades were positioned on Vimiera Hill, the rest of the army were behind two ridges to the north of the hill. Wellesley’s tactics invariably involved keeping his men out of sight to thwart the opposition’s strategy. The 20th Light Dragoons were in the valley, with the village of Vimiera to their right front. The French arrived at 7am on 21 Aug 1808 and the main thrust of Junot’s attack was against Fane’s Brigade on Vimiera Hill. The 20th were the only cavalry at the battle, but they were left to stand and watch as the infantry slugged it out. The CO of the 20th Light Dragoons was Colonel Charles Taylor, spending what was to be the last morning of his life in a state of frustration that his men were forced to stand idle while heavy fighting was going on all around them. Taylor made several rides up the hill to plead for his men to go into battle. But Brigadier Fane did not want his battle messed about by cavalry.
The French columns were getting the worst of it, and when Kellerman’s composite reserve brigade of French grenadiers went in and were also driven off, Fane at last shouted, “Now we want you, 20th! Forward and charge! And show them what you are made of.” As the regiment came up the slope, into view of the British infantry, it was given a rousing reception. Having been plagued all day by the French cavalry galloping about, the infantry had been wondering where their own was. It was with their cheers ringing in their ears that the 20th Light Dragoons formed column of half-squadrons and, with a Troop of Portuguese policemen on either flank, bore down on the French grenadiers, some of whom were broken and disorganised, some retreating in good order. The 20th Light Dragoons rode through them and came out the other side to face 1,000 of the enemy cavalry commanded by General Margaron. They were Dragoons and Chasseurs, in some disorder and unprepared to receive a charge of cavalry moving at great speed towards them. The 20th ploughed into this mass of horsemen, ‘cutting and hacking, and upsetting men and horses in the most extraordinary manner possible, till they broke and fled in every direction.’
For most of Wellesley’s military career he had held the opinion that cavalry were not to be trusted to control themselves once they had achieved their objective. This view was reinforced at Vimiera when Colonel Taylor’s men broke clear of the opposing French cavalry and carried on to pursue some retiring columns of infantry. The regiment was now scattered and out of control as they galloped towards the Frenchmen. Taylor’s thoroughbred had the bit between its teeth and was in the lead, but a French corporal raised his musket and shot the colonel dead. His fate was unnoticed by the others as they were concentrating on the task ahead and cutting at enemy soldiers. The 20th jumped a a low fence as bayonets were thrust into their horses, and found themselves in a field surrounded by the enemy.
One man, Corporal Marshall, was fighting off four French dragoons with his sword and with his horse’s hooves. Luckily the troopers were rescued by the intervention of the 50th Regiment, and were saved from annihilation. As the survivors formed up on the road leading to Torres Vedras they made quite a contrast with the Portuguese mounted policemen; the men of the 20th Light Dragoons were covered in blood, their own and their enemy’s, while the policemen who had backed out early in the charge, were still in a relatively spotless condition. The roll call revealed that the CO, one captain and 53 rank-and-file failed to answer. Twenty of these had been killed, and 42 wounded. The others were missing and some rejoined later. Thirty horses had been killed and 10 wounded. Colonel Taylor’s body was found, stripped by local people. But Vimiera was a victory for the British/Portuguese alliance and brought the 20th Light Dragoons their first Battle Honour.
Taken form: British Empire