Sunday, March 15, 2015

Battle of Tamames, October 1809

“Quantity has a quality all its own”

Following the less-than-stellar performance of the French on their last outing, we decided to refight the real-life battle which had been the precursor to our (only slightly) fictional encounter at San Cristobel.

As I studied Oman, it became even clearer that the real Tamames was a battle which should never have happened. The acting commander of the French VI Corps, Gen. Marchand, was both rash (presumably he could see his Marshal’s baton beckoning) and massively over-confident. Displaying that arrogance which often seemed typical of the French in the Peninsula, he considered any Spanish force a rabble which his veterans could simply sweep aside.

However on this occasion his “Corps” (which actually on the day amounted to only his own 1st Division, the rest of VI Corps actually being either dispersed in garrisons or detached with Gen. Kellerman elsewhere) was facing an entire Spanish army of three divisions. Not only did he massively outnumber his enemy, but the Spanish Gen. Del Parque was unusually good and chose his ground with as much care as Wellington would have. He also benefited from having the core of an established army - around half his regiments were “old” royal regiments with troops who had at least a basic level of military experience and training.

Marchand compounded his folly with poor tactics on the day, attempting his main assault with only a single, unsupported brigade. Unsurprisingly, despite some early success this failed and he was forced to flee both from the field and the entire area of Spain, evacuating Salamanca and retreating to the Duoro.

Oman's rather useful map
For the game, the Spanish force was slimmed down by around 50%; it still had three infantry  divisions, but each of these was only made of two small brigades each of three single-battalion regiments, making a total of 18 battalions of infantry, supported by 2 regiments of (awful) cavalry and 3 batteries of light artillery. To try and give a more balance game, the French division was only slightly reduced, with 3 brigades each of 4 battalions (rather than the 6 battalions each in reality), supported by 2 full regiments of cavalry and the divisional heavy artillery battery. The quality and experience levels of the Spanish force were very mixed with over half being Raw and/or Militia stiffened with a core of Experienced Line regiments, while the French were mostly Veteran.

The table replicated the real field as closely as available terrain permitted, and a broadly historical deployment for the Spanish. Their right (Losada’s division) was formed on steep hills; all raised ground to the right of the road was classed as Rough Going with many areas of Bad Going, while on the left of the road La Carrera’s division held a less-steep ridge, classed as Good Going below the highest contours which became Rough Going. Belveder’s division was held in Reserve off-table in the centre.

A confident Spanish general surveys the field before the battle, master of all he sees. The French players have requested anonymity...
So how did our prequel unfold? Historically, Marchand’s main attack was on the less-difficult terrain held by La Carrera, and our French players decided this made good sense – in fact they deployed their entire division onto this flank in a compact mass, sacrificing any notion of a holding action on their left for a knockout blow on the right. 

Vive la France! Ummm - those guns, late breakfast...?

Maucune and Margognet lead the advance; already, fire from the Spanish artillery is telling. Where are the French guns?!
Having learned from previous mistakes, they realised that Tamames itself was a distraction and wisely ignored it – though a kind of invisible friction did seem to slow Maucune’s brigade on the left of the French advance, as if the town still held a magnetic attraction it was hard to shake off...

Meanwhile, Labasseé’s brigade on the right managed to entangle itself in the small wooded area on the Spanish left as it tried to move wide around the enemy’s flank. As a result, the initial assault on the ridge was made by Marcognet’s brigade in the centre, largely alone. 

Contact - front, 50m, fire!
In an intriguing mirror of history this again succeeded, though with considerable loss against opposition from some Spanish units which was at times worryingly stubborn.  

The French assault begins to tell
French dragoons broke a shaken Spanish square, and one by one Marcognet broke through all of the front-line militia regiments until eventually only the more experienced Principe regiment remained to hold the line, with its formation in disorder. 

It wasn't entirely one-sided, however. Spanish infantry managed to deliver some unpleasant surprises...


They don't like it up 'em, Captain Mainwaring!
... while Spanish cavalry scored a rare success, heroically charging and routing an unprepared infantry battalion as it crested the ridge.

Temptation beckons...
However, a rash pursuit brought the Reyna Regiment within reach of French hussars. The Spanish cavalry promptly decided they had done quite enough for the day and routed, despite receiving hardly any casualties. The supporting Cazadores rapidly followed!
 
Spanish cavalry - easy come, easy go...
Although they didn’t realise it, this was to be the high watermark of the French attack. The delay in support arriving gave the Spanish time to stabilize their lines, and they begin to move their reserves onto the table. Also, the lack of any French attempt to pin the Spanish right allowed Losada’s division to march rapidly left to take up a strongly-held position of defence-in-depth on the shoulder of the right-hand ridge, covering the road and freeing up the reserve for action on the left.

Division will move to the left - quick march!
Back on the ridge, Maucune's battalions finally came into action and it looked inevitable the position would fall to them. Two veteran French battalions were ordered to mount a brigade assault to finally clear the last Spaniards from the hill. It seemed the Frenchmen’s enthusiasm was beginning to falter though; they failed to press home their attack and were repulsed, with few casualties on either side.

The irresistable French tide finally meets the immovable Principe - and its nerve fails. Broken French battalions running and a shattered Légere screen are all that remains of the French centre...
Labasseé’s brigade had finally moved around on the right to be in a position to attack. However, with the other infantry now having suffered major losses or broken and falling back, and facing both Belveder’s and Losada's fully-deployed and fresh divisions, the French commander realised his opportunity to seize a Marshal’s baton had probably gone, and decided a withdrawal was the more prudent course.

Losada has moved across in strength and Belveder has deployed - the shocking failure on the ridge has left the French position looking exposed.
 As the defeated French retreated temporarily into and around the now-abandoned town, Gen. Marchand was already writing his dispatch to the Emperor; six Spanish guns and the town of Tamames captured would make a more positive impression than dwelling on his losses… The reality would surely have been similar to history though; with a strong Spanish army reforming for an attack and his own forces severely weakened, it is hard to see how Marchand could have remained on the field.

Postscript


The French players made the correct choice to push hard on the right – this was the only plan which made sense. Despite this decision though, the execution seemed to fray at the edges as Maucune’s brigade seemed to lag behind on the left and Labasseé’s got held up by its wider swing onto the Spanish flank.  Perhaps a more co-ordinated attack by Maucune and Marcognet together would have overpowered the Spanish centre-left quickly enough to prevent their reserve deploying?

Also, in a remarkable oversight, the French heavy guns failed to contribute to the battle at all. Having failed to position them forward, Marchand helplessly watched his battery slowly drag its heavy guns forward for three hours in a futile attempt to keep up with the rapid infantry advance. As an alternative to the rapid advance, perhaps a more measured approach which prioritised a weakening of the Spanish with sustained fire from a battery of the Emperor’s “belle filles” might have either broken some weaker Spanish regiments by weight of shot alone, or silenced the Spanish guns in the centre which were instead left free to cause major carnage amongst the attacking infantry with canister fire.

As ever, thanks to those who came along and provided a most enjoyable day's gaming. The opinions of participants are welcome – do the French have excuses for the lack of enthusiasm shown by some of their troops, or the Spanish wish to claim divine assistance against the godless French?!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Viva España, October 1809

In the west of Spain in 1809, the French were not having a good time. Their defeat at Talavera was compounded by a further loss to a Spanish field army at Tamames. Led by the Duke del Parque, The Army of Galicia and Asturias went on to evict the French from Salamanca and bundled them back across the Duero in some disorder.

The man held responsible for this fiasco was Gen de Division Marchand, clearly promoted beyond his means to the temporary command  of VI Corps and truly the exception to Napoleon’s expectation that his generals should, above all else, be lucky… The demoralized army was taken over by Kellerman, and poor Marchand returned to command his division.

Kellerman has now marched his army south again to avenge their losses, and Gen. Marchand’s unhappy division is acting as advance guard. They have found at least some of the cursed Spanish, defending an important river crossing at the village of San Cristobel.

Astonishingly - for those of us brought up on the anglicised, Spanish-were-useless history of the Peninsular War, anyway - the background to this scenario is actually true. (The hapless Marchand was only in command because Ney was on holiday – you really couldn't make this stuff up!). It was just translated slightly in time and space from Medina del Campo where del Parque in fact went on to scub the French again - Kellerman’s vaunted cavalry were seen off by a highly-proficient and well-handled Spanish Infantry force - before VI Corps were evicted from Salamanca for a second time!

French enter from bottom, San Cristobel (1) at top right, Ventosa (4) centre. Note the French were unaware of much of the terrain, having only seen a much less accurate map in advance.
This scenario was basically a withdrawal under fire - the Spanish had to evacuate their division across the river, after doing some major damage to the French to prevent pursuit, while the French were anxious to secure the bridge, trap the Spanish on the wrong side of the river and exact some revenge…
The table, seen from the opposite direction with San Cristobel and the Spanish position in the foreground; the French will march on along the road seen in the far corner. The valley with stream and road on the Spanish centre-right was dead ground unknown to the French, and removed before the game. However, the French never tried to move over this area so avoided some nasty surprises!
Ross, commanding the French 1st Division and with the unfortunate Gen. Marchand as his on-table CinC, had a number of disadvantages built into the scenario such as unhappy and unmotivated troops, and a miserable AV of 1 (due to his subordinates  not being willing to follow his questionable leadership). In a spooky parallel with history, he also had to contend with very similar real-world problems from Geoff and Jim, who unknowingly played the parts of disobedient, distracted and unhelpful  subordinates to perfection! 

Paul J commanded his beloved Spanish, ably assisted by Paul C. Unfortunately for the French, the Spanish commanders also mirrored history by their well-coordinated execution of a clear and coherent plan...

The French also suffered from a protracted deployment – their troops were well spread-out on the march as they desperately tried to find forage, resulting in their arrival on table over a period of about 4 hours.  Deploying quickly in a restricted area while keeping the road clear to allow further brigades to arrive started show up cracks in the French command and control system from an early stage!
Geoff brings his first brigades on table
Geoff’s light infantry brigade was the screening the advance, and it moved smartly to investigate and secure the wooded  areas close to the where the road entered the table. Disconcertingly, they quickly spotted two well-formed Spanish cavalry regiments drawn up in parade order on the front of the hill to the French right.
Lacking any cavalry of their own at this stage, a French infantry brigade moves forward to force the Spanish cavalry back
 The Spanish cavalry were sadly rabble (they had only been persuaded to stay on the field at Tamames after their own infantry fired on them) but they put up a fine performance here (and it was a performance - if the French had ever pressed them, they would not have stood). Careful to never look too threatening, and falling back continually in the face of the French advance, they nevertheless delayed the French right significantly, at little cost. 
Pressure on the road builds as more French brigades arrive on the battlefield, and the French right is held back by the Spanish cavalry
The same could not be said for the French cavalry - when they finally reached the table, they were pushed right to face the Spanish horse - but by this time it had become something of a valley of death for them, with infantry lining the enclosures and a well-sited Spanish artillery position above them causing carnage among the hussars and chasseurs á cheval for several hours as they tried to move forward against a hail of iron.
Spanish artillery move into position to punish the French cavalry should they advance..
Meanwhile French brigades continued to pour onto the battlefield; but by now their command and control was coming apart at the seams. The French cavalry were rightly loathe to advance against the Spanish cavalry while enemy infantry held the enclosures on their left, but instead of being deployed to support their cavalry in a quick advance the available French infantry were pushed towards the farm complex at Ventosa. With an amazingly realistic display of gallic arrogance, the French players seemed to think that chasing the enemy out of the farm was a forgone conclusion and would allow them to continue an advance straight up the road. Of course, things didn't quite work out that way...
The Walloon Guards defend Ventosa like a rock against a flood of French infantry
In an astonishing demonstration of the way wargamers (as well as real generals) can suffer from the "Hougoumont Effect", a peculiar little private war began there which eventually sucked in - and badly delayed - two entire infantry brigades as the valiant Walloon Guards battalion defended the complex heroically for several hours. This obsession with Ventosa - which effectively paralysed the French centre for several vital hours - was a roadblock they simply couldn't afford.

An attempt by French light troops to work around the central massif also came unstuck when they unexpectedly found themselves facing the red and green jackets of the British light brigade, concealed in the central forest. After a brisk exchange of musketry, which saw fairly equal casualties on both sides, the British slowly pulled back towards San Cristobal, and the French were content to let them do so! (The British brigade was an interesting sideline - they certainly flummoxed the French and foiled an attempt to work around the top of the massif, but this was a only ever a distraction - they were never intended to be a major force, and Paul bluffed with them very well. The idea of the scenario was a  "what-if" - that Wellesley, instead of simply retreating to Portugal and sulking, had maintained an interest in supporting successful Spanish generals, but only if British troops didn't start to suffer major losses!)

Overall, the French attack was moving forward but too slowly. Eventually they realised Ventosa was a distraction, and abandoned it - the defenders eventually marching out in good order to successfully evacuate up the central road without major loss and with quite a story to tell! As planned, the Spanish were withdrawing - two entire brigades in fact never even being placed on the table, so little pressure did the French put on this process.
The British Light Brigade does what it does best....

Finally, the French approach San Cristobal - and see little except Spanish dust and an impassive line of red coats...
Eventually, as dusk descended around 7pm, the last Spanish brigades were pulling back across the bridge, with a British battalion forming line in front of San Cristobal as it waited its turn, keeping the advancing French at a respectful distance.
At last, the open road beckons...
Right on the last two turns (39 & 40, 7.45pm & 8pm), the French were able to throw infantry at San Cristobal in a last, desperate attempt to dislodge the garrisons before night fell. A quick rush by a Légere battalion secured the older, less well defended eastern side of the village, but unfortunately both the larger but uncoordinated brigade assaults on the western area were spectacularly unsuccessful, with not a single 6 being seen among the (literally dozens) of attack dice thrown by the French!
San Cristobal - The Final Conflict! A final, desperate French assault on the western area fails as night falls.
The outcome, in game terms, was very close; a better-coordinated (or just averagely lucky) French assault on San Cristobel in the final turn could have snatched some degree of success in points terms from what was otherwise a clear tactical defeat.

The post-mortem...

How did it all go so wrong again for poor Marchand?! Well, in an unintended but accurate parallel of French organisation and professional relationships in the Peninsula, Ross's brigade commanders seemed almost willfully disobedient, ignoring most attempts at a central direction of strategy. Like their historic counterparts, they also had an unhelpful tendency to get easily distracted by their own personal interests (in this case, the first game in the Cricket World Cup!) 

Overall though the major cause was the failure to properly support their cavalry brigade, who were basically hung out to die in the centre in a killing ground of Spanish artillery and musketry fire. After taking substantial losses, the remnants of both regiments eventually - and understandably - broke and routed off the field. If the infantry brigades  which had become obsessed with Ventosa had either been tasked with clearing the enclosures instead, or had actually mounted a second major assault instead of hanging around looking embarrassed for two hours, the French might well have reached San Cristobal earlier and with plenty of time to mount a coordinated attack after bringing up their artillery.

As might be expected, final Spanish losses were very low while the French lost 1,000 men killed and wounded overall, with as many again routing off the table.

A good (and long) day's gaming was had by all, although the French side definitely suffered from rather more frustration and friction than the Spanish! As ever, thanks to all who took part. Paul has suggested that the "return match" be an Anglo-Spanish attack on a French position in the Pyrenees, but I have a hankering for a proper stand-up battle first... Tamames anyone?!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

France Sud 1813

The British are pushing north from the Pyrenees, and Marshal Soult has decided to show Wellington that the French are not yet beaten! He has ordered General Foy's division south in a limited counter-attack to slow down the British advance guard.

The battlefield , viewed from the south
The terrain consisted mainly of hills on the southern side leading into more wooded areas to the north. A river, which was broadly fordable, meandered east-to-west. The main roads led to the farm complex of Rousseau in the west and the hamlet of Bouvoir further east.

Unusually for such a small battle, it lasted for two days of (relaxed!) gaming; Paul J commanded the French initially but was replaced by Andrew on the second day, aided on both days by Geoff's tenacious actions around Rousseau. Ross commanded the British main force and was aided by Paul C on the right. Jim turned up on the second day just in time to take on a French command once victory seemed inevitable! Thanks to all for - as ever - a most enjoyable game.

The forces which clashed were similar in strength. General Foy's division was superior in artillery (with a battery each of Heavy, Medium and Horse against Wellington's two RHA troops) while the British had a cavalry superiority (including a heavy regiment of dragoons). The British were boosted by the fortuitous presence of Wellington himself at the head of his men.

Gen. Bachelau's veterans lead the French advance in the centre...
... while Gen. Margaron's conscripts arrive on the left, supported by heavy guns
The French advanced from the north-east, while the British arrived from several points in the south.

A British brigade arrives in the east,  supported by cavalry...
... while the main force advances further west
As the forces sighted each other, extensive repositioning was observed in the British lines. The French moved to counter this, and for several tiring hours the troops on both sides matched to and fro, with both sides looking for an advantage while they probed the state of the river. At an early stage though the French cavalry brigade, supported by its horse battery, made a determined advance across the river to secure Rousseau.
The French seize Rousseau
Eventually, a strong British push from the south-west began to build against Rousseau. 
The pressure builds
As opposing horse artillery began something of a duel along the road, British riflemen pushed forwards. This was too much for the French cavalry to watch idly, and a regiment of hussars galloped forward to chase them off - receiving a galling and effective volley into the flank from a British line regiment which formed on the hills above them.
French hussars demonstrate their elan - and the British demonstrate their firepower
 As Wellington sent more and more forces in that direction, it became clearer that there was little British appetite for a full engagement in the centre and Foy brought Gen. Bachelau's veteran brigade forward into was was becoming a gap, to support his right flank with a counter-attack.

Meanwhile, the French cavalry brigade made a pre-emptive strke against the Dragoons leading the British cavalry force forward, inflicting significant casualties and breaking it before withdrawing. This also caused something of a hiatus in the main British advance, with the infantry shaking out into formations better prepared to receive cavalry before continuing.
An impressive display of drill from the redcoats
The strong British advance forced the French to fall back on Rousseau, and a determined assault then bundled the defenders back across the river.

Rousseau falls
However, this proved to be the high-tide mark for the British advance. Aggressive action by the French cavalry further east - and in particular their horse gunners, who advanced fearlessly to pour in canister - blunted the British advance. As Foy's counter-attack in the centre gained momentum, Wellington's troops began to falter, and his earlier decision to attempt a limited advance on his right deprived him of a reserve he most desperately needed to face it.
The British right flank - the missing brigade!
Out on the right, a smaller but entirely separate battle was raging. A sudden and perfectly-timed assault had hit the unprepared British brigade as it climbed the hills, and broken two battalions. The whole brigade, along with its supporting RHA guns, had to run back half a mile before outdistancing their pursuers and reforming. As the afternoon wore on, it became clear that they were now simply too far from the action on the opposite flank to have any hope of influencing the outcome of the battle. Their return to order and determined advance back into action was a model of drill and a credit to the army, but their absence proved critical. 

In the centre and left, the inexorable pressure took its inevitable effect, as British infantry felt the repeated whiff of French grapeshot. Lacking a reserve to plug the gap, a British withdrawal became inevitable and Wellington was obliged to yield the field.
Wellington seeks shelter with the remnants of his centre, as those cursed horse guns press forward yet again
General Foy's dispatch to his Marshal that night raised the spirits of Frenchmen throughout the country - Wellington had been taught a bloody lesson!

Vive L'Empereur!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

San Antonio - Redux!

24th May 1809 – The Rematch!

In an unexpected twist of fate (or perhaps a parallel universe!) and by popular request, the same British and French forces again clashed again at San Antonio, just three weeks later! On this occasion Wellesley was clearly back on his usual form, and Napoleon could not quite match his previous performance - after a hard-fought and hugely enjoyable game the British finally prevailed.

The Second Battle of San Antonio!
This time, Wellesley moved with alacrity to seize Spinoza and secure the east bridge. At the same time however, Napoleon sent his veteran Light Brigade dashing up the road and across country towards the river. Their Hussar regiment galloped into San Antonio and waited nervously for their infantry to catch up – but they were safe for the moment, the British cavalry Brigade had deployed on the right flank and in turn moved smartly around the south-eastern massif, heading for the easily-fordable upper reaches of the D’Oro. 

To secure his left against this, Napoleon deployed both his heavy 12pdr batteries onto the hill north of the ravine; they had a fine field of fire out towards San Antonio and Spinoza, and prevented a deep cavalry strike around the eastern end of the ravine. Léger battalions moved into the woods south of the ravine, the vineyards beside San Antonio and crossed the river to occupy the dense wood in the centre.

The British toehold in Spinoza looking fragile
 As these marched forward, Napoleon sent his other strong infantry brigade forward in the centre, and held his weaker, mainly raw 3rd Brigade in reserve. Wellesley sent his veteran Highlanders forward to secure San Truco and ordered his 3rd Brigade on a wide outflanking march to the west, which it carried through without hesitation over the course of the next few hours.

The Long March begins...
An early British attempt to cross the river in the centre before the French could move up in force was foiled by the veteran Light Cavalry in San Antonio, who moved into the vineyards and carefully controlled the centre for the next few hours. They surprised the first British battalion as it struggled up the banks in disorder, charging and sending it running back with heavy casualties.

Undaunted, Wellesley then demonstrated a textbook deployment across the east bridge, shuttling infantry battalions through Spinoza. A Guards battalion bravely advanced forward and formed square between the vineyards and the woods, preventing the French cavalry from interfering while two regiments of cavalry calmly crossed the river behind them. Picking their way across slowly and disordered, the cavalry took nearly two hours to form up safely on the western bank; the Guards paid for this vital time in blood, being reduced to 30% strength. A heavy French assault on them by two line battalions was repulsed, but Napoleon had his Grenadiers to hand and they charged the Guards, exploiting their disorder and finally breaking them.

Pressure builds...
The Grenadiers could do no more though – they found themselves facing two regiments of British cavalry keen to avenge the slaughter of their comrades in kind, and had no option but to form to receive cavalry, their flanks secured by the vineyards and the woods. A Léger battalion defended the woods though, and more Léger lining the edge of the vineyards stymied the British cavalry – they desperately needed infantry support to force the matter, and there seemed to be none to be had.

Napoleon still had a secure hold on San Antonio, and the British cavalry appeared powerless to intervene – any attempt to move further north around the French flank would have exposed them to ferocious fire from his 12pds batteries. A stalemate seemed to have broken out, although the French commander was acutely aware of the threat posed by the British brigade still doggedly marching towards his undefended right flank.

Suddenly, to Napoleon’s horror, Highlanders were pouring out of San Truco and across the D’Oro! In perfect order, a battalion emerged on the north bank and formed square to protect the crossing while their comrades followed – the French Light Cavalry were powerless to interfere. The Highlanders’ canny commander had realised that the villagers on the far bank must have an easy way to get to and from church, and thought to dip his toe in the water – there was a ford, right below the old abbey!

The British are across!
At the same time, British RHA galloped up to the dense woods to the left of the crossing and poured canister into the unfortunate Léger defending it. Seeing their opportunity, the 95th Rifles were quick to move up and joined the gunners in flaying the woods with lead. The Voltigeurs’ nerve finally collapsed under the sustained fire, and they retreated, shattered. The 95th rushed into the woods and prepared to assault San Antonio.

Pinned by the enemy cavalry, the French Grenadiers could only watch helplessly as British infantry also struck decisively into the vineyards, evicting the defending Léger. A perfectly-coordinated assault then erupted against San Antonio, with Highlanders charging in from the south and the 95th Rifles across the river; even a raw conscript battalion scented victory and attacked bravely from the vineyards. Overwhelmed, the defenders were ejected.

San Antonio falls
Although Napoleon still had most of his force intact, it was in no position to retake the village. British artillery had now unlimbered on the hills to the west, and were firing unopposed into the exposed French lines as more riflemen and fusiliers forded the D’Oro north of Puente Negro. Napoleon had run out of time and options – a withdrawal north before the enemy could exploit their victory and cut him off was his only choice.

Wellesley could justly celebrate – although he had lost most of three battalions of infantry, and many other units had empty ranks at parade that evening, he had out-foxed Napoleon. The Frenchman’s losses were light, but his reputation had suffered much more serious damage!



Sunday, May 4, 2014

San Antonio, May 1809

Historians have recently uncovered details of a previously-unknown action of the Peninsular War, on 3rd May 1809 around the village of San Antonio in northern Portugal. It seems Napoleon had not left Spain as early as was previously thought, and we now know that he did in fact face General Wellesley in battle once long before Waterloo!
Both Generals found themselves ahead of much of their forces, maneuvering in command of just a Division each to seize and hold the crucial road junction and bridges near San Antonio. Prior to the battle, Napoleon had already forced the British to march further west than they had intended, so on the morning of 3rd May we find Wellesley leading his men down from the mountains to the South, while the Emperor pushed rapidly down from the North. At 10am, the forces sighted each other and began to deploy for action.
The Battle of San Antonio, 3rd May 1809
Napoleon clearly was not impressed by what he had heard so far of the Sepoy General, sending Cavalry and artillery west without delay to secure the Rio D’Oro while pushing hard to occupy not only San Antonio itself but even managing to seize the large farm complex at Spinoza, which controls the eastern bridge across the river. By 1pm the Emperor justifiably felt his position was secure.
But what of the British? A distracted and hesitant Wellesley seemed unable to act with any speed, barely managing to assemble his force in a confused mass to the south of San Truco by the end of the morning. An ADC later suggested the General seemed to have over-estimated the difficulties he would face in attempting an early crossing of the D’Oro, failing to grasp his opportunities until they had slipped beyond his reach. Perhaps this unexpected meeting with the Emperor in person had shaken his confidence?
Initially, the strong British Cavalry brigade (comprising three regiments of Light Dragoons) were sent west, into the forests south of the D’Oro; less suitable terrain for their deployment could scarcely be imagined. After blundering around there for two hours they came under a fierce fire from French heavy guns north of the river, a lucky shot from which decapitated their commanding officer. Unnerved by this first taste of action, and confused by the lack of any apparent plan or clear orders, their newly-promoted General decided to withdraw back the way they had come.
The British march hither.. and thither..
Meanwhile, discovering his mistake in allowing the enemy to occupy Spinoza, Wellesley had ordered two battalions across the river in an assault. However, climbing the steep banks in disorder they proved incapable of ejecting the confident French Léger battalion defending the farm and were broken after being counter-attacked by an assault column of French Grenadiers. One of these battalions, raw recruits freshly arrived from England, was shattered and could not be prevented from fleeing the field in panic.
A third battalion did advance up the narrow ravine to the east but, finding themselves unsupported and out of contact with the rest of the Division, had no alternative but to form square when threatened by a regiment of enemy Hussars which was scouting out to the left of the French positions, where they were subsequently pinned for several hot and uncomfortable hours...
Ah - what do we do now, sergeant?
Finally realizing the severity of his position Wellesley determined to redeploy his entire army to the east, where he had more detailed knowledge of the terrain (including a detailed survey showing the eastern reaches of the D’Oro were easily fordable). This plan, if executed well, might indeed have changed the outcome of the battle, trapping the French with their backs to the river and cutting them off. Sadly, Wellesley’s subsequent actions failed to deliver this and have indeed confused historians (as they clearly also did his own officers at the time).
The British redeploy east (mostly out of shot!) and the French counter.
As the bulk of his infantry set off on a long, wide march around the massif to the south-east, he ordered the troops on his left to follow suit. A battalion of Rifles, holding the vineyards to the south-east of San Truco, duly pulled out and headed east across the Rio Blanco stream. Other than a last remaining cavalry unit, this left the entire area undefended. Unable to believe their eyes, the veterans of a French Léger battalion instantly seized their opportunity. In a spectacular coup de main, they raced forward across the river and scaled the hill in front of San Truco; before any British troops could prevent them, they smashed their way into the old medieval buildings, barricaded the doors and took up firing positions.
This was a disaster for the British – how could they have failed to garrison or even secure such a keystone of their position? We can only assume in the confusion of redeployment, orders had failed to arrive or been misunderstood – surely a General of Wellesley’s calibre could not have made such a fundamental mistake?
The capture of San Truco
Wellesley’s shock turned to horror as he realised his light RHA guns could have little effect on the stonework of the strongly-built old abbey. He turned to the only troops still close enough to act and ordered his veteran Highland brigade to recapture the position. These reformed into column and made two brave attempts, but were unable to find a weak spot in the old abbey’s strong walls. Lacking any equipment for such an assault they were forced back both times, suffering from the Léger’s accurate shooting from the rooftops as they went.
Clearly frustrated by the lack of an enemy to fight, the Emperor was by now looking to the only places he could safely act more aggressively. He ordered his reserve Brigade east, where it occupied the large woods to the north of Spinoza and moved to support the Hussars pinning down the only British who had so far advanced out of the ravine.
Meanwhile he also sent a Brigade forward across the river on his right, towards the largely-empty British left. A charge by some British Light Dragoons was repulsed by Chasseurs, leaving the French infantry free to assault the vineyards, which had finally been re-occupied by the Rifles. Some well-aimed shots from an RHA battery sited in the hills to the south brought one battalion to a halt in disorder; a sharp fire from the riflemen then broke its spirit and it ran back to the forest to rally. Unsupported though the riflemen could do little to resist the remaining French columns and had to fall back.
News of this reverse was the final straw and Wellesley issued orders for his forces to withdraw to the south, from where he began his march back to Torres Vedras. Leaving Massena in charge, Napoleon departed for Paris. Perhaps the events of 1815 were shaped by what each leader experienced at San Antonio?
Considering the engagement had lasted most of the day, losses on both sides were relatively light – the battle had at times an almost Malburian feel as Brigades maneuvered for position on a wide scale and close engagement was limited. Crucially, in the close country neither side was able to use their main strengths to effect – the two batteries of French heavy artillery had trouble seeing targets, while the strong British cavalry presence was crippled by a combination of difficult terrain and indecisive leadership.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Battle of Guarda - May 1810

Finally the major powers have clashed in the West - Marshal Massena launched a strong French attack on the northern Portuguese mountain town of Guarda. This was defended by the entire Portuguese Army, supported by a number of British regiments and commanded by General Beresford.

The map

Guarda in more peaceful times, looking east - the Portuguese position is in the foreground, the French attacking from the far end. The Portuguese MLR  was drawn from the woods on the left, through the town and the woods on the right, then west along the long ridge forward of the river line.
The terrain hugely favoured the defenders, with most of the woodland (as well as the major hill on which Guarda itself sits) being Bad Going impassable to cavalry and slowing and disordering close-order infantry. The more open areas of rocky terrain are Rough Going, which again slows and can disorder close-order troops. The town of Guarda was awarded a Defence Value of 3, reflecting the solidity of its construction and its position atop an almost unclimbably-high and steep mountainous hill.  Although reduced by the early summer, the rivers also posed formidable obstacles which disordered close-order units crossing them.

Massena and his lieutenants deploy their forces, worried about the task they face
Although clearly concerned by the terrain they faced (and a strength of opposition which, as it turned out, their intelligence had somewhat over-estimated), the French commanders made their dispositions and, promptly at 8am, started to advance towards the village.

As their infantry slogged towards their objectives, the French soon brought their 12pdr battery to bear on the town, and settled in for a lengthy preparatory bombardment. Within the first half-hour of cannonade though the gunners displayed some outstanding accuracy and were astonished to see their efforts rewarded very quickly as walls collapsed and some of the defenders' positions were exposed to fire. With parts of the town reduced to rubble, would Massena be tempted to try a direct assault?

The bulk of the French force had been committed to an advance deep up the southern flank. Massena's plan called for a heavy left-hook to capture the heights overlooking the river and the Portuguese positions beyond. As their advance continued, it became clear that the Marshal was not going to let the temptation of capturing the town distract him from his plan.

French forces mass on the left
As the action developed it became clear that the French were to be superbly served by their strong light infantry contingent, which included many of the elite, veteran Voltigeurs of the Imperial Guard. It also became clear that the Portuguese lacked any effective reply to these troops, fielding only a single battalion of Cacadores.

French light troops swarmed through the centre, making the most of the difficult terrain to envelope the town and engage its defenders.

French light infantry attack the town
Others raced forward to clear the woods and rocky ground in front of the main French advance, where they met and quickly overwhelmed Beresford's Cacadores.

Other French Légere assault the woods on the Portuguese right, evicting the Cacadores defending them. 
In the centre, the light troops spent the day wearing down the defenders; one valiant Portuguese militia battalion was reduced to a single company, but still stood its ground. However, no assault was ever made on the town and its garrison held out comfortably throughout the day.

Instead, the French massed for an assault across the river. A single Portuguese infantry brigade held an advance position on the reverse of the long ridge, but seeing the strength of the forces approaching they withdrew to defend the northern side of the river. An intial reconnaissance by French Dragoons was met with cannon fire from across the river, but they rapidly occupied the heights and were able to view the Portuguese position for the first time.

The Portuguese position is revealed
Now the quality of the French - a well-led, veteran and professional force - began to assert itself over the inexperienced mixture of a few British regulars mixed with local militia which made up the Portuguese Army. Time and again, French light infantry advanced to the river and poured volley after volley into the brigades defending the far bank.

Uncommitted and immobile Portuguese reserve cavalry look on as their countrymen die on the riverbank and French light infantry penetrate the left of  their position, shortly before galloping off to the west in retreat.
The rapid and accurate fire from the Young Guard voltigeurs caused carnage amongst the defenders, who proved unable to make any effective reply. Inexplicably, Beresford left these units in place for two hours, either unconcerned at their plight or unable to construct an alternative plan. Meanwhile, the French Légere in the centre has occupied the light woods to the rear of Guarda, partially cutting the town off and capturing their second battery of Portuguese guns in the process.

Threatened by light infantry annoying his centre and finally realising the plight of the infantry defending the river, Beresford decided to ignore his strict orders to hold the town and in the early afternoon withdrew his Army to the west. The grateful and somewhat surprised French were only too happy to let him go without hindrance.

Portugal is now afire with speculation and rumour. Wellington is said to be immensely displeased with his subordinate's performance and his failure to hold this strategically vital town. The Portuguese Regency is rumoured to be no less furious at Wellington for moving British troops away from Guarda prior to the battle. Where now for the Alliance? There is even a suggestion the Regency, presumably impressed by Beresford's heroic stance, are demanding Wellington be replaced...