Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (17 & 18 July 2019)

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Date of Auction: 17th & 18th July 2019

Sold for £26,000

Estimate: £20,000 - £26,000

The fine Army Gold Medal to Lieutenant-Colonel James Hugonin, 4th Dragoons, a distinguished officer who led the 4th’s left squadron in Le Marchant’s brilliant charge of the Heavy Brigade at Salamanca; by far the most important British cavalry action of the Peninsula war, this charge broke three regiments of French infantry and won the day; Hugonin Commanded his Regiment at the battle of Toulouse and was the youngest of three generations of Hugonins who successively became the Commanding Officer of the 4th Dragoons

Field Officer’s Gold Medal 1808-14, for Toulouse (Major James Hugonin, 4th Drags.) complete with gold ribbon buckle, extremely fine £20,000-£26,000


Provenance: Hamilton-Smith Collection 1927; Dix Noonan Webb, March 2014.

The record of service of the Hugonin family is probably unique in the British army. Three generations of Hugonins, James, Francis and James John, successively commanded the Fourth Dragoons, giving the regiment eighty-nine years of continuous service, from 1747 to 1836; their total service amounting to a hundred and thirty-five years. The influence on the regiment of the three Hugonins, grandfather, father and son, was considerable. This remarkable family connection was strengthened by the fact that several other officers of the Fourth Dragoons married into the Hugonin family. During this whole period, the Fourth Dragoons maintained a very high level of discipline and efficiency, and its officers, who included Lord Edward Somerset and Sir George Scovell, a reputation for great military ability and keenness.

The Hugonin family originated from Vevey in western Switzerland. Early in the 18th century one of them married an English lady, and his branch settled at Nursted House, Buriton, near Petersfield in Hampshire. His son James was the first family member to be commissioned into the Fourth Dragoons. Joining as a Cornet in 1747, at the age of eighteen, he became Lieutenant-Colonel in 1775, and commanded the regiment for fifteen years, making a total of forty-three years’ service. James left the regiment on promotion to Major-General.

James Hugonin’s only son, Francis, received his commission as Cornet in 1768, was promoted Captain in 1775, on the same day his father became Lieutenant-Colonel, and himself became Lieutenant-Colonel of the Fourth Dragoons in 1794. Francis was in command for nine years until he left on promotion to Major-General, but he returned to the regiment in 1808 as Colonel, and held the appointment until his death in 1836, at the age of eighty-five, a total of sixty-three years with the regiment.

James John Hugonin, the third generation of Fourth Dragoon Hugonins, was born at Blandford, Dorset, on 13 June 1782, and was the only surviving son of Francis. He was commissioned into the regiment in April 1795 at the age of twelve, when his father was in command, and was promoted Lieutenant on 30 September the same year. He was promoted to Captain on 25 June 1803, aged 21. The Fourth Dragoons were based in Sussex, as part of the defence against a French invasion. In 1809 James John acted as Aide-de-Camp to his father, General Hugonin, on the Staff of Sussex District.

Talavera and Busaco

James John Hugonin went with the Fourth Dragoons to the Peninsula in April 1809, where he held a staff appointment as Brigade-Major. The Fourth was one of the few cavalry regiments to serve for virtually the entire Peninsula campaign. James was present with Fane’s brigade of heavy cavalry (3rd Dragoon Guards and 4th Dragoons) at the battle of Talavera, where he commanded a squadron. He was also present with the two squadrons of the Fourth Dragoons at Busaco, the only cavalry in the line of battle.

In early 1811, Hugonin was detached, with local rank of major, to command a squadron of 3rd Dragoons until July 1811. R. H. Thoumine’s biography of General Le Marchant describes an incident that occurred while Fane’s Brigade was covering the retreat of the British forces from Badajoz, as Soult’s relieving army approached. The brigade was “under strong pressure from the French advanced guard. At La Granja, the enemy pushed on through the night on the information of a deserter, and came near to cutting off a squadron of the 3rd Dragoons, under Major Hugonin, who were foraging there. As the enemy burst from the wooded hills above the village, Hugonin scraped up enough horsemen to meet a charge in the main street, which left half a dozen casualties on each side.” (Scientific Soldier p 167 refers). Hugonin was promoted to Major in his own regiment on 19 December 1811, just before his 30th birthday.

In February 1812 the cavalry was reorganised into Brigades and the Fourth Dragoons joined the 5th Dragoon Guards and the 3rd Dragoons under Major-General John Le Marchant, a man of great determination and vigour. Le Marchant was very proud of his Heavy Brigade and wrote in May 1812: ‘I am exceedingly pleased with my Brigade, being perfectly satisfied that no cavalry of double its numbers could stand before it.’ General Picton was moved to observe, ‘I always feel easy when General Le Marchant’s men are between me and the enemy; they do their duty and can be trusted; and I heartily wish the rest were like them.’

Triumph at Salamanca

Salamanca was one of Wellington’s greatest victories. The French lost 14,000 men, 20 cannon and two Eagles, for an Allied loss of 5,000. Along with Assaye and Waterloo, it seems to have been among his favourite achievements. At around 5p.m., the French division on the left wing was heavily engaged with the advanced brigade of the British 3rd Division and the French cavalry was nowhere to be seen. Le Marchant spotted his opportunity, and without orders from above or additional British cavalry support, he gave the order for his nine squadrons to form line to their front, with the Fourth Dragoons to the fore, just as the French were pushed off the crestline by the British infantry.

Then, his trumpeter sounded the Charge and the whole line broke into the gallop and crashed downhill into the two battalions of the French 66th Regiment. When the first line of the enemy was scattered, Le Marchant rallied his Heavy Brigade, the dreaded Messieurs en rouge, “big men on big horses” and led them forward against a second line, the 15th Regiment, and then, getting ever deeper into the French positions, against a third, the 22nd Line, which made a brave attempt to withstand the furious charge. The men of the 22nd Line held their fire until the dragoons were only ten yards from them, and then fired a tremendous volley. Many saddles were emptied but the dragoons could not be stopped and, after a desperate fight with sword against bayonet, the French broke and fled towards a nearby wood, but were hunted down by small groups of dragoons.

After the third formation of infantry had been broken, Major Hugonin, who was commanding the left squadron of the regiment, had his horse shot under him. He suffered from gout, and wore boot and spur on one foot only, with a large cloth “shoe” on the other, so without his horse he was helpless. He stood, sword in one hand, cursing his ill-fortune until a trooper came up, dismounted and helped the Major into the saddle. The trooper made his way back on foot while Major Hugonin galloped forward, seeking more Frenchmen.

The brigade continued its triumphant advance, seeking the enemy wherever he could be found. Le Marchant was always in the lead and himself killed six or seven men. In the final phase of the charge, with half a squadron of the Fourth Dragoons at his heels, he found a body of infantry re-forming in front of a wood. Instantly he charged and sent them flying into the shelter of the trees. As he galloped after them he fell from his horse, shot in the groin and his spine broken, killed at the moment of victory.
Le Marchant’s magnificent, murderous charge had made victory certain by destroying the French left, and was by far the most important British cavalry attack of the entire Peninsula War. It had been witnessed by Wellington, who turned exultantly to Sir Stapleton Cotton, commanding the cavalry: ‘By God, Cotton, I never saw anything so beautiful in all my life: the day is yours!’
After the rout, the Fourth Dragoons captured some of Joseph Bonaparte's silver from his baggage train. It was repurposed to provide cutlery and the Salamanca Donkey for the Officers' Mess.

Command at Toulouse

In December 1812, Hugonin was appointed Brigade Major to the 1st Cavalry Brigade, now commanded by Major-General William Ponsonby of the Fifth Dragoon Guards. At the battle of Vittoria, although placed in the centre of the line, Ponsonby’s brigade was not called upon to fight during the day.

In July 1813, Hugonin assumed command of the Fourth Dragoons. The regiment was given the duty of covering the siege of Pamplona and was afterwards on garrison duty between that place and St Sebastian, thus missing the fighting in the passes of the Pyrenees and the pursuit of Marshal Soult into France. In February 1814, Ponsonby’s brigade marched along the main road through Irun to St Jean de Luz, and joined the main army at Aire on 14 March. Six days later the brigade was engaged with the enemy at the crossing of the Garonne, and on Easter Sunday, 10 April, it took it’s place in the line of battle at Toulouse.

Major Hugonin commanded the Fourth Dragoons at the battle of Toulouse. The Spanish infantry was given the honour of attacking the centre of Soult’s position, with Ponsonby’s cavalry in support. They were thrown back, but, in the words of Canon, the Heavy Brigade, ‘by its firm countenance enabled them, after having been thrown into some confusion, to re-form their ranks.’ The brigade then saved the Portuguese guns from being captured by the enemy. The Fourth Dragoons had two men and five horses killed at Toulouse, and two officers, six men and thirty-one horses were wounded.

Waterloo and ‘Captain Swing’

After Napoleon’s abdication and exile, Lieutenant-Colonel Dalbiac returned to resume command of the regiment. The Fourth Dragoons marched to Boulogne and returned to England in July 1814, before being sent to join the garrison of Ireland. Hugonin may have stayed behind, seconded in a training or administrative capacity to the Prince of Orange’s army in the Low Countries. Intriguingly, his entry in the Royal Military Calendar (1820, no1715, vol V, p150) states that he “served in Flanders and was present at the battle of Waterloo.” This near-contemporary record is generally accurate and reliable, but Hugonin was most likely at Waterloo in a personal, unofficial capacity, as he was not a staff officer and the Fourth Dragoons were still on garrison duty in Ireland.

Many British officers on detached duty or half-pay made their way to Brussels, hoping to arrange a formal attachment to one of the units of Wellington’s army. A few succeeded. Hugonin’s old chief, Major-General Ponsonby, commanded the Union Brigade, and was the natural authority for Hugonin to approach for help in such a quest. Ponsonby may have been prepared to employ him as a potential replacement for a field officer who fell seriously ill or became a battle casualty. Hugonin may even have been embedded within Ponsonby’s brigade throughout the battle. In the event, Ponsonby was famously killed during the Charge of the Union Brigade, so any arrangement (if there was one) was never formalised.

In 1818 the Fourth Dragoons were clothed and equipped as light cavalry, with a new blue uniform with yellow facings and silver lace. Hugonin is depicted in several contemporary paintings at this period, mounted on his charger with his coloured trumpeter in attendance and the regiment beyond. He was promoted Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on 21 January 1819, at the age of 36. That year the regiment moved from Cork to the south-west of England for anti-smuggling duties.

When the Fourth was ordered to India in 1821, Hugonin retired after twenty-six years’ service; his father was still Colonel of the regiment. James’s decision to retire, almost certainly driven by his existing health issues and concerns about the unhealthy military life in India, seems to have been a wise one. During four years based in Gujerat, the Fourth Dragoons suffered 443 deaths, primarily from cholera and fever.

Hugonin settled down in Hampshire as a member of the landed gentry and a local magistrate. It was in this capacity that he once again commanded dragoons, during the serious agrarian unrest in 1830 known as the ‘Captain Swing riots.’ During four days in November, menacing mobs of thousands of agricultural labourers, many of them drunk from stolen liquor, looted and destroyed buildings and threshing machines in the villages to the north-west of Petersfield, terrorising the local gentry, and causing the authorities to deploy cavalry units ‘in aid of the civil power.’

Hugonin’s father had been thanked by King George III for helping to put down the Gordon Riots in 1780; James played an energetic and leading role in bringing the Captain Swing inspired anarchy under control. He wrote to the High Sheriff of Hampshire (who was also a local Member of Parliament) that his actions had deterred the “determined threats of the mob to pull down our Poor House”, he had been in “no apprehension” of a mob gathering from his own parish, but “the mob from the lawless districts of Selborne, Kingsley, Hawkley, etc is of a more formidable description than the common run of mobs at present.” Hugonin reported that he currently commanded a force of thirty dragoons with which he could “prevent any violence by any number of the mob,” and added, "you will probably think that this smacks too much of the old Soldier.”

In early December, assisted by his bailiffs and dragoons, Hugonin rounded up many of the local ringleaders and committed them for trial. 345 men were arrested for participating in disturbances in Hampshire in November and December 1830, far too many for the Assize courts to handle, so the Government set up Special Commissions to ensure speedy punishment as a deterrent to further violence. The Hampshire Commission started its work in Winchester on Monday 20th December, with the Duke of Wellington sitting on the bench. Out of the five most dangerous men arrested and committed by Hugonin, all were convicted by the jurors. One of them was transported for life, the remainder received sentences of imprisonment with hard labour.

James John Hugonin died at his residence, Nursted House, Buriton, on 30 January 1854, aged 72, and is buried in the family crypt in Buriton Church.