On 4th May 1811, the 11th Light Dragoons sailed from Plymouth, bound for Portugal and the war against Napoleon. On 30th May, Colonel Henry Cumming, 32 officers, 36 sergeants, eight trumpeters and 642 men arrived at Lisbon to fight in the Peninsula War during which they were to win fame and honour. They were also to earn a nickname which lasted until amalgamation in 1992, was readopted thereafter and is still familiar to many today.
The Regiment’s first action was not a success: a poorly placed outpost under Captain Benjamin Lutyens was surprised on 22nd June by a large French force over four times their strength. They fought hard but were forced to retire towards another body of cavalry whom Lutyens took for Portuguese allies but they were in fact French. Lutyens and his men were cut off and in the ensuing scramble, eight men were killed and 22 wounded, while two officers and 75 men were taken prisoner, many of them wounded.
While the Eleventh showed their inexperience of war, they also demonstrated their bravery, having fought against overwhelming odds for three hours and caused many French casualties.
It was on 15th August 1811 that another incident took place, possibly indicating the Eleventh’s lack of experience. A patrol of 10 men under Lieutenant Frederick Wood was surprised and captured by the French. Tradition has it that the men were in a cherry orchard and were not paying full attention to their military duties. The nickname The Cherrypickers was, however, always proudly borne by the 11th Hussars in later years! Wood was later to be severely wounded at the Battle of Waterloo.
The first major battle for the Eleventh was on 25th September, when, at El Bodon, they held the heights against repeated French attacks. Outnumbered, by some accounts, 10 to one, the Regiment charged over 20 times against the French attackers, suffering casualties of 10 killed and 21 wounded. The Eleventh had made their reputation; an officer of the 16th Light Dragoons writing: “The conduct of the Eleventh Light Dragoons was such as must stamp them as soldiers doing their duty in a critical situation.”
Throughout 1812 the Eleventh were always active, notably at the Battle of Salamanca in July and the subsequent pursuit of the French, and the entry to Valladolid on 31st July. On 6th September a squadron of the Eleventh, under Lieutenant Colonel Sleigh, crossed the River Douro near the town of Boccillo, and surprised a French post. The British cavalry commander, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton, witnessed this from across the river and praised the action of the Eleventh by describing it as “… the quickest thing he ever saw cavalry do”.
Unfortunately the British advance which was halted at Burgos, turned into a rapid withdrawal during which the Regiment lost 50 men killed or wounded, and 40 horses. During this time they also won the praise of the Duke of Wellington for their steadfastness in action.
However, when the army went into winter quarters in October 1812 it was decided the Eleventh were so reduced by casualties and sickness that they should return home and in March 1813 the 11th Light Dragoons passed their horses to other regiments. On 4th June they sailed from Lisbon, arriving at Portsmouth on the 17th and then on to Cork. The 11th Light Dragoons had suffered casualties of 417 men and 555 horses but the Regiment had won the Battle Honours “Salamanca” and “Peninsula” – and that famous nickname!