Monday, February 21, 2011

The Battle of Alicante

Spanish forces moving south to Alicante from Valencia engaged a strong French force approaching from the west. Unfortunately, the poorly-commanded and inexperienced Spanish force was spread out on the march and found itself unable to concentrate effectively against the veteran French. As a result, the Spanish suffered heavy casualties with only around one-third of their numbers escaping either towards Cartagena or being evacuated from the beaches by the Royal Navy. However the Spanish Army can stand proud, as their men fought bravely and resisted a superior enemy with great determination to the end.

The Alicante battlefield
At the start of the action, only Gen Palafox’s infantry brigade and the cavalry of Gens. Torres and la Pena had arrived on the field. Palafox’s small force was positioned in and to the south of Orchard 3 to hold the centre, while the (southern) left flank was defended only by Gen. Torres’ cavalry and a half-battery of 12pdr guns.

Gen. La Pena’s single strong cavalry regiment was concealed in the light woods at the northern edge of the battlefield, with the mission of surprising and delaying any enemy advance towards the crucial road access from the north. This they attempted to do, charging out of the woods to the shock of three battalions of French light infantry who were advancing towards it. However the veteran infantry formed rally squares, and their determined resistance prevented the cavalry achieving any success. Unable to break the enemy with their charge, the cavalry retreated back through the woods to reform as part of the main defence line which was now being established.

Initial engagement
While la Pena’s cavalry delayed the enemy advance, Gen. McCullagh’s brigade had arrived to bolster the terribly weak defence. This force then bore the brunt of a strong French attack on this flank, and succeeded in holding the road open long enough for Gen. Lardizabal’s infantry brigade to enter the battle. These three strong Militia battalions, which fortunately arrived slightly earlier than expected 90 minutes into the action, immediately deployed to the south of McCullagh.

French pressure builds...
French columns advance...
The French pressed hard against the Spanish right, with heavy and prolonged supporting fire from 8pdr and 12pdr batteries continually whittling down the defenders’ numbers.

In the centre, Gen. Palafox moved his brigade forward into the exposed open ground in order to screen the right flank from this telling artillery fire and paid the price, his men holding on though until few were left standing.

In an epic contest of strength and courage, Militia fought and died side-by-side with Regulars, successfully holding back the French tide. Generals inspired their men to rally and stand time and again throughout this desperate struggle, their hopes raised by the eventual reinforcements provided by Gen. Postiga’s small infantry brigade and (more vitally) his half-battery of 6pdrs. 

The Spanish rally yet again
Many Spanish regiments performed outstandingly, including McCullagh’s veteran Walloon Guards and 3/Hibernia, as well as Gen. Lardizabel’s conscript battalions who fought like lions. However, after over 3 hours of intense combat – and coming close to fighting their enemy to a standstill - the Spanish line finally collapsed, the artillery crews just managing to escape after blowing open their own gun barrels to prevent their capture.

The Spanish line finally collapses
On the southern flank the French had advanced much more cautiously. Although quickly overwhelming the Spanish 12pdr guns on the central hill with weight of shot, they were obviously worried about further ambushes from the woods in the centre and on the Spanish left, and their progress was cautious. 

French deployment on the southern flank
Gen. Torres’ cavalry were concealed behind this hill, which dominated the southern half of the battlefield, and when the French did start to push forward they showed themselves. After being fired on by French heavy artillery, they withdrew again behind the safety of the hill.

Spanish left flank
Having seen the cavalry though the French advance on this flank slowed, with their infantry advancing very cautiously around the central dense woodland and their cavalry holding back in support. When they finally came within reach, Gen. Torres charged over the hill towards a French cavalry brigade with the Pavia Dragoons and the Rey\Reina Regiment of heavy cavalry. 

The Spanish charge
The latter were broken during their charge by a devastating volley from a nearby French infantry square which brought down fully half the men and horses in the regiment; shattered, the survivors fled, eventually retreating to safety through Alicante.

Spanish cavalry charge on the left flank
This left only the Pavia Dragoons, who spectacularly avenged the slaughter of their comrades against a French light cavalry unit, decimating and routing it for little loss. 

The Pavia Dragoons wash their sabres in French blood
Sadly, the Dragoons were in turn caught by French lancers while disordered and three quarters of the unit fell where they stood. 
Damned lancers...
The last remaining Spanish cavalry on this flank, the tiny Olivenza Cazadores regiment who had been held in reserve could do little but fall back to the north, where they subsequently mounted two heroic and successful charges against French heavy cavalry.

The Spanish right flank collapses...
The Spanish forces on the right had meanwhile resisted just long enough to allow the last brigade, Gen Villa’s, to arrive on the field. Unfortunately, the inexorable advance of the French to the south gave them no choice but to rush south as fast as they could in the hope of escaping the inevitable French push towards the sea on the left. The surviving troops on the right and in the centre sold their lives dearly to buy Villa’s men the time to reach the coastal hills north of Alicante and thence the safety of the beaches where the British Navy stood ready to evacuate their allies. Forming up behind the ridge line protecting the southern beach, Villa’s Regular battalions progressively embarked in good order, retiring as efficiently as if on parade.

The race for the beaches begins...
By this stage the brave remnants of the Spanish right had been pushed back onto the coastal hills, with only the sea at their backs. Streams of wounded and broken troops poured onto the beach where British sailors and marines worked frantically to move the flow of men into boats and off to safety, all the while looking anxiously to the ridge for the appearance of French cavalry.

The successful evacuation of so many of these troops was only possible because of the sacrifices made by the surviving elements of the Spanish cavalry. 

The French right flank closes the road to Alicante
They charged heroically down from the hills to protect their comrades; although their losses were almost total, they badly mauled both the French heavy cavalry which threatened the northern beachhead and a regiment of lancers approaching from the south.

The last stand by the heroic Spanish cavalry
Wary of coming under fire from the British squadron, and shocked and exhausted after a battle which had proved much tougher than Marshal Mortimer’s veterans had ever expected, the French occupied the town but halted to the west of the coastal hills. After 6 bloody hours of intense fighting, the last boats pulled away from the shore to the safety of the British ships and the Battle of Alicante was over.