A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My Peninsular War Spanish Armies (1) - Nationalists

If you study a modern English-language history of the Peninsular War - and Charles Esdaile's book is a particularly good example - you get an impression of that conflict which would have been barely recognisable 50 years ago.

It seems unbelievable now, but my original plan for my wargame armies for the Peninsular War had no Spanish troops on either side. Laughable might be a better word. There were reasons. Partly it had to do with the availability of suitable miniatures in the correct scale (20mm or old-fashioned 25mm - basically "1-inch" figures), but it is also true that the overwhelming impression I gained from my reading prior to (say) 1975 was that this was appropriate. I had read and re-read Michael Glover's "Wellington's Victories in the Peninsula", and moved on to his more substantial "The Peninsular War 1807-1814" when it appeared in 1974. Looking at it again today, it is remarkable. Considering that Glover freely acknowledges that his main source was Oman's multi-volume tome, it does make you wonder what happened to all the Spanish bits. The narrative strings together the campaigns of the British troops (with some reference to their integrated Portuguese allies) and of the French armies which were specifically engaged in opposing them. Thus there is only fleeting reference to the other French armies (virtually nothing about the crucial fighting between Suchet and the guerrilla forces in the north, for example), and the Spaniards appear only rarely, and in cartoon form. Cuesta is portrayed as a character straight out of Punch and Judy, and the performances of the Spanish field armies are mentioned only when they support the general themes of incompetence and disorganisation. The cataclysmic Spanish success at Baylen is covered in two short paragraphs, and - to restore balance - Castaños is described as "one of the few Spaniards of talent".

You get the idea. This polarised view of history was supported by Jac Weller's "Wellington in the Peninsula" and by what I had seen of the classic work by Napier. The Spanish guerrillas were effective (if distressingly given to barbaric vengeance), but the real war was between Wellesley/Wellington and the French Army of Portugal. This was the received British view of the Peninsular War.

Because of the shortage of pre-1812 wargame figures, I was pretty much committed to the later stages of the war, and I took Salamanca as my period of choice. Admittedly there were some Spanish troops in the Allied army at Salamanca, but they did not play a major part, I could find little or no reliable information about either their organisation or their dress, and the writings of Messrs Featherstone and Co suggested very strongly that no-one would actually choose to command a Spanish force anyway. So though I did pencil De España's division into my proposed OOB, I had no thoughts really on how to set about recruiting it.

Since my return to wargaming this period in recent years, I find that the histories now give a much wider view, and that it is now generally accepted that the Spaniards did much more than merely providing a location and an excuse for the British and the French to fight each other. I have done a lot of work on researching and building Spanish contingents for both sides, still taking my base year as 1812. It is a lot easier now.

The Nationalist Forces

None of this would ever have been possible if I hadn't obtained a copy of JM Bueno's fine "Uniformes Españoles de la Guerra de Independencia", which is a real reference bible. In the scales I use, only Hinton Hunt and Minifigs (I can use some S-Range figures) made Spanish infantry in the British supplied 1812 uniform. Since I was dissuaded from selling the house to raise funds to purchase HH (which, strictly speaking, are a tad small for me anyway), I managed to collect together enough Minifigs SN1s figures to put together some battalions. Partly this was achieved though some swaps which in some cases amounted almost to acts of charity - I am still very appreciative of everyone who helped. Most of my line units are SN1s, with mounted colonels converted from Art Miniaturen Belgians. The Cazadores de Castilla required a double-breasted coat with British light-infantry style shakos, so Falcata French infantry were fitted with Higgins British LI heads. Because I could not get hold of enough S-Range infantry, I also have a battalion of Warrior figures. They are OK, but I'll replace them if I can get more of the Minifigs. There's something about Warrior - if you measure them they should be reasonably compatible, but somehow they don't look quite right. Also, they always have that lunging stance which causes visitors to say, "Ah - I see you have some Warrior infantry - what unit is that?".

Regiments of Sevilla, 2nd Princesa and Jaen, with, in the foreground, the Tiradores de Castilla (left) and Cazadores de Castilla.

I have also added a battery - the gunners are uniformed in the French style - not least because the castings are NapoleoN French foot artillery. The officer is Art Miniaturen.

My generals are as yet unpainted - they are in the pipeline. I would like to add some cavalry, but am still looking for suitable figures. Warrior do make lancers, but they have a touch of Picasso’s Don Quixote about them which makes it hard for me to take them seriously, and Warrior's own horses are too like Bucephalus to fit in. There were (very briefly) some terrific Falcata lancers, available a couple of years ago, but I missed those (of course).

I'm now working on a militia brigade to add to this organisation - 4 battalions plus a battery. Castings are NapoleoN and more Minifigs S-Range, and I hope to obtain a battalion's-worth of Kennington's 1812 American militia, which look to me like a good prospect for a nation switch. I'll put some pictures up here when the militia are painted and ready for action.


  1. My first serious reading about the Peninsula was Oman, critical of the Spanish of course, esp the generals and occasionally the troops but he gives them credit on occasion too. Unfortunately the used book store only had the first 3 volumes so I've been waiting for 25 years to find out what happened after Talavera :-) The copyright is up so hopefully before long I'll be able to download the rest.


  2. I haven't added any Spanish troops to my forces - prefering to concentrate on the British, Portuguese and French. I think the lack of suitable Spaniards in plastic had a lot to do with it. I'm looking forward to Hats offering, but I won't hold my breath.

    I must say I've never really thought of the Spanish being neglected as I've only ever read Gates and Oman. You wouldn't recommend Weller then?

  3. I have a good, full set of Oman - I've never sat down to go right through it (it's on the list of future projects - I hope the brain lasts) but have got a terrific amount out of reading specific sections. Oman gets a mixed press these days - probably unfairly, I think. His views on column vs line have famously come in for a lot of criticism - I think it's generally accepted nowadays that the French columns in the Peninsular would deploy into line if they got close enough and if the terrain allowed it (the compound probability of ticks in both these boxes was not high), but I think he may also have fallen between two traditions of historians. His recent critics are unenthusiastic about his approach - which was regarded as correct in his day - whereby the historian consults his sources, decides what happened and tells the story. Now it is necessary to consider all possibilities and quote everything. I can see merit in both approaches, though the modern one makes it easier to revisit subjects later.

    Oman's early critics disapproved of the fact that he was a historian rather than a military specialist, and the fact that he never served in the army was also resented - I believe that his PW history was less jingoistic than Napier's, which fact did not suit a lot of people and traditions, and Napier's eyewitness status was held to count for a great deal by Oman's critics.

    Jac Weller's book - it's enthusiastically written, but it is really what it says - a devotional story about Wellington. Good maps, and Don Featherstone and others have based campaigns on it. When a book gives the British OOBs down to battalion level, but gives the French in the form of an approximate headcount for each division, you get the idea pretty quickly.

    I did have David Gates' book - I bought it new, but it was among a pile of stuff I lost when I got divorced - I never got to read it, and have never had the heart to replace it - maybe I should. I recall that it was regarded as fairly radically pro-Spanish when it appeared.

    Much of what has been handed down to us over 200 years about the PW was distorted right at the outset by oddities such as the resentment felt for Beresford and everything to do with his Portuguese army by those British officers who did not transfer to the Portuguese service and thus disapproved of the hike in rank enjoyed by those who did, by a certain tradition of island xenophobia, and by skill on the part of certain generals in playing down the part played by their allies.


  4. I thought Weller's book was the greatest thing when I was in school and reading it while I was supposed to be doing something else, but re-reading it now the same things you mention leap out at me. I couldn't see it then, but I did see what was good.

    Even so, there is a lot for others to learn there, such as the real dimensions of a square, a horse, etc.

    Working at horse races I caught loose horses on foot, and used ideas on real horses I learned from Weller explaining the square. It worked. My colleagues were all routed and would have been ridden down, afraid to help.

    I would say get Gates again, don't worry about the loss.

  5. Yes - I guess I'll buy the Gates book again. I was hoping someone would talk me into it. Thanks for that.


  6. Foy,

    I've read the first three volumes of Oman and enjoyed what I have read - what irks me is the brickbats he takes over the column versus line issue. He got a tactical question wrong, thats in arguable - it seems ridiculous to me to disregard the rest of his work on that basis because he got so much else *right*. More sinned against than sinning.

    Gates who has done a lot of work in the field differs from Oman in emphasis - but they agree far more than they differ. When I was reading Oman, I would often refer to Gates because the maps were clearer.

  7. I agree entirely about Oman. Much of the fuss is about detail and practical issues to do with manoeuvre - the basic premise that more guns will generally defeat less guns, however, is pretty much a no-brainer - though I don't think Dr Lanchester used exactly that phrase.

    Oman is definitely an older style of historian. My mother once said that reading his books was like having him in the room, sitting in a big armchair by the fire, telling you the story. That age-old role of the historian as storyteller is probably despised now, but it has definite attractions. In my very humble opinion, Charles Esdaile's books (for example) are excellent - illuminating - but, man, they're not exactly entertaining - you need a lot of coffee to get anywhere with them.

    Just a different style. No one can dispute Oman's academic qualifications. Being the established work in English on the PW makes his history an obvious target for criticism. The fact that his book is to an extent a product of the age in which it was written appears to upset modern writers. They can't really diminish the achievement though.

    If I can ever produce anything short enough and worthy enough, I might have a go at a post on Oman some time. I think he is due some good press, however puny!


  8. I've got the full set of Oman, the three Weller books, and Esdaille and agree with all you chaps views on them. I did have Gates and a full set of Napier but they went in similar circumstances to Tony. Maybe it's me age but I seem to recall the Gates maps were awful (though the text was excellent)?

  9. Oh and by the way the only second hand copy of Uniformes Españoles de la Guerra de Independencia I can find today, is retailing at £138!

    1. Benjamin - if you get to read this, email me at msfoy@btinternet.com - if I don't hear from you, I'll delete this comment in a few days (been having spam problems). I have some information you might be interested in...

      Cheers - Tony