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

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Portuguese Cavalry Project

This has been off and on for many years. A chance discovery, and the fact that I have more time to fiddle around these days, means it is probably back on again.

No-one makes Peninsular War Portuguese Cavalry in 20mm. If you are a 28mm or 15mm gamer then you are well provided for, but 20mm, nothing doing. I have approached this problem in a number of ways. For a while, I decided the easiest approach was to assume that by 1812 the Portuguese had been supplied with British Light Dragoon pattern (i.e. French style) bell-top shakos, and I should convert some kind of cavalry wearing single-breasted jackets accordingly. I even have some Scruby British Light Dragoons which I bought specially for the purpose, with the intention of grinding off the epaulettes and shako cords - enough for at least two regiments. Alas, they are among Scruby's most primitive offerings, and I cannot bring myself to invest effort or money into them. The sow's ear/silk purse department is simply not prepared to take this on, though I have warmed a bit to Scrubies of late.

So I fell back on the safe and well-tried option of doing nothing at all about it. Portuguese cavalry (with all due respect) was not usually effective in a battlefield role, so could be a lowish priority anyway, and - anyway - I have not always been entirely comfortable that I knew exactly how these guys were dressed. There was the strange sky-blue uniform on the cover of Otto Von Pivka's old Osprey book, which I believe is probably incorrect (though it appears to have influenced GMT's counter artwork for Commands & Colors: Napoleonics), and there was a wide range of interpretations of the appearance of the helmet. The headgear situation is confused by the fact that the Legion d'Alorna wore something very similar to the helmet of a French line lancer, with a high crest, while there are descriptions of cavalry units in the Portuguese army equipped with British equipment, including, apparently, Light Dragoon-style Tarleton helmets.

We are much better informed these days - the recent Chartrand books published by Osprey are a big improvement. Just to be difficult, for a moment, let's go back to 1810, and reproduce an illustration from William Bradford's very fine Sketches of the Country, Character and Costume of Portugal and Spain.

Bradford's book includes plates of relatively familiar Spanish and French subjects which demonstrate that he was a skilled observer, and recorded what he saw. The cavalryman has his side plume removed, and the wide front stripe of piping colour is unusual, but we get the idea - there is no cause to doubt its authenticity. While on the subject of ancient history, here is a photo I took in 1981, back in the pre-digital days when poor holiday snaps really were poor, at the little military museum in Morges, Switzerland. The exhibit was described as a Napoleonic Spanish coat, but the button inscription (P. JOAO VI PRINCIPE REGENTE) and the style of the jacket identify it as Portuguese, the facings (sky collars and cuffs, red lining) being those of the 11th cavalry. The wings are odd - maybe a later addition, or a trumpeter's ornament?

The recent stroke of good fortune was that I came across some 20mm Kennington (SHQ) Waterloo Dutch Cuirassiers, and I think they will make pretty good Portuguese horse. Dutch cuirassiers, luckily, did not actually bother with wearing cuirasses, which makes the single breasted jacket a good match for the Portuguese one - near enough for 20mm, anyway. Sadly, Kennington do not do matching command figures, but the troopers are available in a resting or a charging pose, and it should not be a life-threatening challenge to produce two officers and two trumpeters with dremel, razor saw and my box of spare parts. I believe the project is back on - I would not recommend that anyone holds their breath, but I have a good feeling that my hoped-for, two-regiment brigade will become a reality before long.

To finish on a complete irrelevance, I was very taken with another of Bradford's plates, which shows a Portuguese goatherd in an ingenious straw raincoat. How about thatched guerrillas, then?

I am still having problems with Blogger which mean it is a major hassle to sign on successfully, so I have been unable to comment on my usual blog haunts, and publishing is an uncertain process. I am making use of Firefox to get by, but am not happy with it as a general-purpose browser for a number of entirely personal reasons (that should get me some hate mail – there’s nothing like a perceived religious insult to get people worked up...)


  1. Foy, I mustered some Portuguese Dragoons some time ago, though I haven't finished basing them.

    I haven't done anything to them, just had them painted as Portuguese - who am I to deny a chap a plume?

    I like the thatched fellow. Similar rain gear was once prevalent in Japan, though I came across a description somewhere once of Galician shepherd wearing stilts while chasing after sheep.

    Now there's a conversion project and a half.

  2. Nothing like scrounging a figure to make something unique (or near so).

    Now that guerilla, I see skirmish game with a field full of hay stacks which suddenly come alive and turn into armed guerillas!

  3. What about combining Conrad's idea and have haystacks on stilts? :-D

    I have a similar problem re. Spanish cavalry and am probably going to convert some French dragoons into bicorne wearing line cavalry. Not ideal, and like the Portuguese cavalry, may not be entirely worth the hassle in the end!

  4. Since the Spanish troops were noted for their chain-smoking habits, the thatched guerrillas would have to be subject to a special rule, maybe - a particularly bad dice throw and the lot of them go up in flames.

    Rosbif - I've been doing a lot of head-scratching on the subject of Spanish cavalry too. I'm confident you know more than I do about this subject, but if you want to get in touch for a natter, please email me through the link in my Blogger profile - I'd be most pleased to hear from you, and I have some books which might be useful.

    Your French dragoon conversion is a smart way to go - certainly for the earlier years - different paint jobs will give you plentiful units of dragoons and line cavalry. After 1811 or so the number of men in bicorns seems to have diminished a lot, as far as I can deduce. Dragoons & line cavalry became as unevenly dressed as everyone else, and looking at OOBs from the later period suggests that the old regiments only survived as odd squadrons in provisional units - most of the cavalry present in the field seems to have been the volunteer units which may or may not have been part of the regular army, and most of them seem to have been dressed as hussars! The first instalment of my Spanish cavalry is all irregulars and volunteers - including 2 units of Julian Sanchez's Lanceros de Castilla (though Sanchez might not recognise their uniforms!) and one of mounted guerrillas. I will probably add a unit of miscellaneous hussars. That should do it for me, though I am looking at an s-range unit of yellow dragoons which could be refurbished. Then there's always the Coraceros Espagnoles, in captured gear, who are just French cuirassiers with red jackets, but I'm not sure where they actually appeared in the field.