On the morning of 17 June the Anglo-Dutch army began its retreat from Quatre Bras toward Waterloo, covered by the British cavalry and guns which delayed the French pursuit at every opportunity. The Light Cavalry Brigades under the command of Vivian and Vandeleur formed the left column of the rear guard as it marched northwards, heading for the narrow bridge over the river Dyle at Thuy.
The last of Vivian’s Brigade had crossed the bridge, and as the French cavalry attempted to follow they were met with an accurate fire from troops concealed behind a hedge and in a sunken road on the far bank, and forced to retire. The shots had the familiar crack of rifles, but they were not fired by the riflemen of the 95th Regiment (the Rifles) but by the troopers of the 10th (Prince of Wales) Hussars. The 10th Hussars were the only rifle armed cavalry in the British Army, but how had this come about?
Friedrich Christian Baron von Eben was born at Creutzburg in Silesia in 1773 the son of a Prussian general. He joined the army in 1787 and served in his father’s regiment of Hussars against the French in the Low Countries between 1792 and 1795, being awarded the Order of Merit for his bravery. He resigned his commission in 1799 when Prussia refused to renew the conflict with France, and entered British service as a Captain in the York Hussars before joining the 10th Light Dragoons. A socialite, who counted amongst his personal friends the Duke of Sussex, the younger brother of the Prince of Wales, he also wrote several military treatises on the use of light cavalry, which brought him to the attention of the Duke of York, the Commander in Chief of the Army. In 1802, when York was establishing the Experimental Rifle Corps (renamed the 95th Rifles in 1803), von Eben wrote a treatise entitled ‘Observations on the Utility of good Riflemen’ in which he proposed the adoption of the rifle by both infantry and cavalry.
Von Eben’s idea for re-equipping the cavalry with rifles was not taken up, but the Colonel of the 10th Light Dragoons – the Prince of Wales himself, took a keen interest in the equipment as well as the appearance of his regiment, and ordered a test to be made of two rifles, one made by Henry Nock and the other by Ezekial Baker.
The result was clear, and in response Baker was ordered to supply the regiment with an initial 40 rifled carbines. The carbine was essentially a cut-down version of the Baker rifle then in service, but without the bayonet (not required by the cavalry) and with the addition of a captive ramrod (to prevent it from being dropped and lost in the heat of battle) and a safety catch at the rear of the lock plate (for preventing the carbine from going off ‘half cocked’). Later versions had a swell underneath the stock similar to a pistol to improve the grip and steady the aim.
The Prince of Wales took great pride in his regiment, and in 1807 he ordered a new sword for the officers from the John Prosser, sword cutler of Charing Cross. The sword was based loosely on the 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword, but with a modified hilt bearing the Prince of Wales cipher mounted on the langet.
But what of Von Eben? He left the 10th Light Dragoons in 1806 and returned to his native Prussia the following year where he served as a volunteer until the Peace of Tilsit. He then appeared in Portugal, where he married Elisabetha Contessa d`Astigarraga, the daughter of a Portuguese Admiral, in Porto 1808, only to lose most of his possessions when the French siezed the city the following year. He joined the Portuguese Army under Marshal Beresford, and from 1809 to 1813 he was present at most of the major battles and sieges of the Peninsular War before being made Governor of Tras os Montes province. In 1817 von Eben was implicated in a conspiracy against the King of Portugal, and but for his friendship with the Duke of Sussex and his association with the Prince of Wales he would probably have been executed. Instead he was exiled, and he ended his colourful military career in the service of Simon Bolivar during the South American Wars of Independence. He died in Bogota in Columbia in 1835.