Captain Sampson Stawell (1785-1849)
By Fergal Browne
Sampson Stawell was born at Kilbrittain Castle, Co. Cork, Ireland on 6th October 1785. On 15th January 1801, at the age of 15, he enlisted as an ensign in the 36th Foot and was promoted to Lieutenant on 9th July 1802. In 1804 he transferred to the 54th Foot, with whom he was stationed in Gibraltar, and in February 1805 was promoted to Captain in the 99th Foot. On 29th January 1806, he transferred to the Cavalry, becoming a Captain in the 12th Light Dragoons.
Peninsular War 1811-1814
Following their involvement in the disastrous Walcheran Expedition in 1809, the 12th Light Dragoons were stationed in the south-eastern coast of England for the whole of 1810. However, in May 1811 they received orders to embark for Portugal to join the army of Arthur Wellesley. The regiment was divided into four ‘troops’ – one of which was commanded by Captain Sampson Stawell.
In January 1812, he was involved in the major action of Cidaud Rodrigo and on the following April fought at Badajoz.
In April 1812, Stawell was appointed Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant General Christopher Tilson-Chowne, of Wellington’s 2nd Division, a position he held until January 1813, when he returned to the 12th Light Dragoons.
In April 1813, the regiment began to advance towards Oporto. In a letter written by Lt. John Vandaleur, we read that:
‘We… proceeded on the Oporto road to Albageria Vilha, 3 leagues as the right Squadron commanded by Captain Stowel [sic] marched a day before the other two. We halted there on the following day, to allow them to come up.’
At Vitoria on 21 June 1813, the12th Light Dragoons were involved in some of the fighting later in the day and were sent in pursuit of the retreating French forces. After Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, the regiment embarked at Calais for England.
The Battle of Waterloo – 18th June 1815
At the start of the Waterloo campaign the 12th Light Dragoons embarked for France under the command of Lt. Colonel Frederick Ponsonby, to join the army of the Duke of Wellington in Belgium.
At Waterloo, the 12th Light Dragoons were positioned on Wellington’s left flank, near the farm of La Papelotte. The regiment was divided into 3 squadrons, Sampson Stawell being in command of one of them, assisted by Lt. Chatterton and Cornet Lockhart.
In the early afternoon, Napoleon sent four divisions of infantry forward, supported by cavalry, to break the centre of the British line. The British Heavy Cavalry – the Union and Household Brigades, charged the advancing infantry. Wellington then deployed his light cavalry, including the 12th Light Dragoons, to support his heavy cavalry. Lt. Col. Ponsonby decided to attack a body of infantry directly in front of them. The 12th managed to hold in line formation until they collided with the French infantry, successfully scattering them. However, in the ensuing fighting Lt. Colonel Ponsonby was severely wounded. His second in command, Major Bridger, had his horse shot from under him and was temporarily incapacitated. Having continued their charge, the 12th were now deep in the ranks of the French army. Before the regiment could reform, they were shattered by the French infantry reserve and charged by a regiment of French lancers. An entire squadron of the regiment was wiped out. Out of 310 men, 94 were left and Captain Stawell was the most senior officer left standing. Deep behind enemy lines, Stawell assumed command of the regiment and reformed the survivors into two squadrons. They limped back up the hill to the British lines, supported by the 11th and 16th Light Dragoons. Major Bridger procured another horse, rejoined them and then took over command from Captain Stawell.
What was left of the 12th Light Dragoons remained on the left of Wellington’s line until 5pm in the evening, when they were redeployed to reinforce the centre.
They were positioned with their backs to a deep quarry. Captain Stawell expressed concern at the awkward position the regiment were in if they were obliged to retreat. He suggested that the regiment move forward. This put them well in front of the rest of the brigade – and some of the men were injured by grapeshot fired from the French cannons. When the last desperate French attack was beaten off, the 12th Light Dragoons advanced over the ground on which the battle had been fought.
Sampson Stawell was promoted to Brevet-Major on the evening of the Battle of Waterloo. The 12th Light Dragoons marched on Paris with the rest of the British Army, occupying the Champs Elysee at one point.
In March 1817, the 12th Light Dragoons were redesignated as the 12th Prince of Wales Royal Lancers and were given lances as side arms. Horse Guards finally confirmed Stawell’s promotion to Major on 16th September 1819. In 1827 he became Colonel of the Regiment.
Stawell often attended the annual dinner given by the Duke of Wellington at Aspley House, his London home, for surviving officers of the battle. He appears in a famous painting of one of these gatherings in 1836, which is now on display at Aspley House.
On August 21st, 1849, Sampson Stawell died at the Dragon’s Hotel, Harrogate. His body was returned to Ireland, and he was buried in Rathclaren Church, near Kilbrittain Castle on 31st August.
His brother officers paid for a large memorial to be erected in the church. It reads:
‘In Memory of
Colonel Sampson Stawell
The X11th Royal Lancers
For XX years
And, served in that regiment
For upwards of XL
He died August 21st, 1849
In the 64th Year of his Age
This monument was erected
By his brother officers
As a mark of their esteem
For his worth,
As a gentleman, an officer
And a friend.
On the bottom plinth of the monument a list of Colonel Stawell’s battle honours can be seen.
Apart from the plaque in Rathclaren Church, Sampson Stawell is all but forgotten. He lived at a time where career advancement, both military and political could be purchased provided one had sufficient funds. However, at a moment of crisis he kept a cool head and extricated the remains of his regiment from far behind enemy lines, during a battle that changed the course of European history.