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The sporting horse on the Lines
Written by Administrator   
Sunday, 01 March 2009

When Baron Marbot (Marshal Massena's adjutant), arrived at the Lines and camped near Sobral de Monte Agraço, he observed to his great surprise, that the English used magnificent hunting horses (thoroughbreds) for their reconnaissance work. Military doctrine always had taught that sporting horses were useless for war, because of their scarcity, temperament and high price.

a specialsits rider... 

The British however, did not use them in the cavalry regiments, but with a number of trusted, well trained elite riders, normally light cavalary officers (dragoons), with the objective of collecting important information about the invader: they would approach the French troops, alone and just out of musket shot range, and in the event that the French tried to chase them, would put spurs to their mounts and quickly lose their pursuers, later returning to continue their observations.
The importance attributed to these valuable horses was such, that their riders had instructions to shoot them whenever there was a risk of their falling into in enemy hands.

The French for their part, eager to capture one of these beautiful creatures, resorted to employing the most curious stratagems. Baron Marbot records in his memoires, that one day after a skirmish, a voltigeur feigned death, with the intention of attracting the attention of one of these spies, and in the event surprised and captured the rider, without, however, avoiding the death of his magnificent mount.

More success attended a character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, father of Sherlock Holmes, in the delightful adventures of Brigadier General Gerard on the Lines, in the story of a daring French cavalry officer, who, with the intention of observing the alies, managed to cross the first line near the Mosteiro de Santo António do Varatojo, mounted on a splendid Arab horse, and headed, half disoriented in the darknesses of the night, in the direction of the allies main encampment. When skirting the main signals and communications post, his horse was shot from under him by an anglo-lusso piquet and he was obliged to take refuge in a Quinta which served as lodging for English officers who had also stabled their valuable hunting horses there.

The intruder thus managed to steal one of these agile thoroughbreds and, thanks to his blue uniform, similar to that of many British officers, succeeded in returning uninjured to the advanced French picquets by joining in a fox hunt, one of many organised by the English behind the first Line.

According to Lionel Dawson fox hunting enjoyed great prestige among British officers during their occupation of the Lines. Challenges, games and pursuits were frequent, with the consequent improvement in knowledge of the country between the allied and French positions.

Wellington, like all older officers of his time, regarded fox hunting as an excellent sport, well suited to the training and orientation of a soldier. The time that the army passed among the Lines of Torres Vedras thus saw the birth of fox hunting in Potugal. Wellington having brought a pack of beagles from England, ordered that his officers should hunt three days per week, in the country surrounding their respective quarters. The Commander in Chief (the Duke of York - the king's son) had a sovereign disdain for such goings on, saying many times that his main desire was that men presented themselves in time and ready to fight. Mounted on his Irish thoroughbred "Copenhagen", however, the Wellington at the head of the hunt enjoyed  the greater prestige among his troops. The enthusiasm of the General fostered competition between regiments and it was not rare to find senior officers in their finest turn-outs. General Thomas Picton, commander of 3ª division, initially installed at Torres Vedras, never failed to wear his top hat.

All the officers participated in the hunts in full uniform, representing all the branches of the army. There were redcoats, dragoons and infantry officers from all regiments, forming a motley multicolored crowd. The sober Wellington was present frequently in his grey cloak.
Along the Lines the land was undulating, but open and without great obstacles: the places where the foxes had their earths, such as the slopes of the Serra do Socorro, were well known to the hunters. The only forbidden zone was the gap in the main line of forts in the direction of the enemy.

Wellington's chief huntsman - "master of fox-hounds" - was called Tom Crane and wore a scarlet "hunting pink" jacket as was the custom. One day a cunning fox suddenly changed direction so that Tom crossed the enemy lines without noticing them. The baying of the pack and the sound of the horn had attracted a French cavalry patrol, who thus came across an "English eccentric" with a fox skin hanging of his saddle, encircled by strange dogs.  
The whole équipé were summarily imprisoned under orders of a French sergeant, at the headquarters of the enemy. The hounds had been locked up in a nearby quinta and the capture excited the curiosity of all the troops in the neighborhood. And so with the aid of an interpreter, in contrast with expectations, they soon discovered that they were not in the presence of an important English "milord", but merely the servant of some important Englishman. During the night the hounds, separated from their master, made so much noise that the French quickly decided the following morning to free them and from there returned the whole pack and Tom to their Master.

Curiously, although the use of specialist hunting horses was important during the period of the defence of the Lines, later the famous cavalry charge of the Royal Scots Greys during the battle of Waterloo, was made with peninsular horses, "pelagem ruça" (grey coats), deriving in the main from Portugal.

Charge of the Royal Scots Greys

The "Raid Hípico" evokes the spirit of the specialist riders of the light cavalry, who with their magnificent horses and sophisticated Elliot carbines, crossed the lines to watch the enemy, or to take important messages whenever adverse climatic conditions hindered regular functioning of the (semaphore) communication masts.  
The "Raid Hípico" actually follows a historical reconstitution through its route, which may be described like this: General Picton with his division located near Torres Vedras, decides to check on the exact position of the French army under Masena's command. In this manner he sends his well trained exploring officers to cross the Archeira hills, to watch the movements of the French 8º Division, commanded by Junot, near to the Quinta da Conceição in Caixaria. However on the riders' return, Picton is unable to send the information to Wellington and the Serra do Socorro because of a thick morning fog. The riders are then directed to Archeira de Guerra, where they contact General Cole, and onward to Pêro Negro, where Wellington in turn, commands that they inform Beresford, then in Alqueidão, La Romana in Enxara dos Cavaleiros and Spencer at Quinta da  Póvoa. This is the last stop before the dispersal of the fog, and the message finally is sent to all the line through the Serra do Socorro.

Miguel de Vasconcellos

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 31 March 2009 )

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