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.


  1. Great to see this Blog Spot revived, and the VLE rule set still going. Though it had its problems they were by no means insuperable (and maybe they have indeed been supered already), and had a lot going for them.

    A campaign run by the late Barry Taylor, which continued the narrative of his Europia after the Ulrichstein Revolt, still used the VLE rule set (as his campaign, though in a world more cognate with Europe of 1750, was set during times we would now call 'Napoleonic'.

    At any rate, the rebellious Archduke - Emperor Ferdinand's younger brother or brother-in-law (I'm going by dim memory here; at any rate I was the egregious Archduke in question) found himself leading a strong advance guard facing and even stronger Imperialist force (led by Jacko - Paul Jackson) coming up fast from the east. The Rebel army fought a pretty successful delaying action and inflicted heavy losses on the Imperialists before eventually drawing off to the north and west.

    It was a very satisfactory action - the only downside, from the rebels' point of view, being that they could not prevent the splitting of their forces, the smaller contingent (with the Archduke) drawing off to the north; the main body to the west. At least we had given better than we had got.

    I have always felt that the feasibilty of a fighting withdrawal or delaying action was the acid test of a rule set. I don't know what modifications Barry had made (he had made some), but, whilst preserving the action IP system, it seemed to offer the defending side (as I was) better scope for counter-action than had been possible hitherto. I did have some luck, of course: the Imperialists never did capture the whole village that formed the lynch-pin of the rebel defence - not until the Rebs gave it up voluntarily. But I seem to recall that Guarda village proved equally adamantine in defence.

  2. It was such a pity that Barry's failing health prevented further action in that campaign.

  3. FYI - here's the link to the 'Battle of Hister' from Barry's campaign:
    I referred to a 'rebellious Archduke', but that was due to a failure of memory. He is the soi-disant King Konstantin of Barry's narrative. The maps, by the way, are not to scale, as will be apparent from the pictures.

  4. H'mmm... OK, I have been taken off the list of contributors. Interesting... I was wondering if the problem in re initiative PIPs has been resolved.

    Here was the problem as I saw it. Imagine a situation in which I have a veteran unit (3 PIPs) awaiting an attack by 2 veteran units in successive lines. The first enemy line marches up into range. As I have simply been waiting, I send off a volley, whereat the enemy responds, I send another, the enemy retorts the same, and then I shove in my third. Two shots to my opponents' three. Sounds perfectly reasonable, and it is.

    But then comes the kicker: The enemy second line advances (1 PIP), passes through the first, and then lets rip: two unanswered volleys (2 PIPs). The attackers get in 4 shots to the defenders' three.

    It is of course true that did the attackers advance in line abreast they would get in 4 shots to 3 anyhow (ignoring flank supports). But that's line abreast, not what amounts to a regimental or brigade column.

    Let's take it further. The defender's turn is next. The enemy has exhausted his fire and must endure the incoming. Defender decides to fire off all 3 volleys. The attacker has no reply to make. If these shots are effective the defender might well see at least one of his assailants off, and he'd better hope that's the case, for the attacker's next turn is going to be a doozy.

    If the attackers aren't beaten off, they'll get all 3 volleys from the front line, and two from the rear unit as it also passes through the enemy line. Five volleys! Even if the defender enjoyed some kind of shelter, defence will be an unpleasant business.

    Recalling the Guarda battle, it did occur to me to wonder why the defending Allies were getting in so much fewer shots than our guys were. I wasn't really attending (having issued my orders and left my subordinates to get on with it - my usual style of command in these sorts of affairs).

  5. Having done some research on this, I discover that whilst a recognised battlefield manoeuvre, passage of lines was not often practised even by well trained troops, and was simply not attempted under fire. You would have to ask yourself, why didn't the French ever try it with their brigade or Division columns in the Peninsula or at Waterloo? These columns were made up, after all, by successive battalions in line. If the passage of lines were feasible at all, it must have been feasible by these columns.

    There was a good reason why the passage of lines of successive battalions was not - and could not - be carried under fire or directly under the noses of the enemy, and whilst engaged with them: the process is disordering. It would require a halt in the fire by the leading unit whilst their friends passed through, entail a period of extreme vulnerability whilst the two units were superimposed upon each other (and what enemy could resist that opportunity?), then a period of equal vulnerability whilst the second unit established sufficient order to be able to shoot effectively.

    In my view the passage of lines ought to be permissible only when not under fire or out of musketry range of the enemy ( I prefer the latter as a blanket rule, as someone is bound to say otherwise that as the defender has exhausted his fire in his own bound, then there is no incoming in mine...). Even then it should cost a PIP to both units involved. It seems to be then you will see the P.o.L. manoeuvre in its proper place on the war games battlefield.

    Before I go, I wish to be ignored on another matter that cropped up: the British 4-deep line vs cavalry. Again, I researched this. It turns out that in the entire Napoleonic wars, this occurred precisely once: at the end of the day at Waterloo, when the French cavalry were already tired and clearly at the end of their tether. I am inferring that the 4-deep line was simply in preparation for forming square, but with the final manoeuvre left to a necessity that did not arise. In my view, that single instance, in special circumstances, does not justify its inclusion in a Napoleonic rule set.

    Look, I liked the Vive l'Empereur rule set: the games were very playable, sufficiently fast moving and - at least potentially - offered reasonable results. That it took me so long to appreciate that it had its problems (actually quite easily fixable ones, I believe: passage of lines, the 4-deep infantry, oh, yes, and reaction tests for seeing skirmishers retreat - I mean WTF?? - that's what you expect skirmishers to do), was due to my habit of playing the battle and not the rules. If it looks wrong (which is why I don't play Volley and Bayonet) then more than likely it is wrong.

  6. Ion, not ignored just hadn't got around to reading the comments. Point on PoL is interesting, will consider it, thanks. Not as convinced by issue with 4-deep; my understanding is that many Brits maneuvered in that formation throughout Waterloo, not just at the end, due specifically to concerns about French cavalry (and so it was evidently a known formation). OK, so it may have been a short-cut to square (or not, did standard drill include that evolution?) but at the end of the day I see it as being as more about preparation - expecting cavalry and being ready in a deeper-than-usual formation would be good enough if your flanks were protected, and that's what the double-depth formation is trying to do in the rules - a mechanism to indicate an adequate level of preparedness rather than simple depth where the situation doesn't require pinning a unit in square.
    Also not sure that broken skirmishers running away look any different to any other broken troops running way though. We are talking about battalion-sized bodies here, not just a few voltigeurs.

    1. You might want to check how the squares themselves were formed: the faces were 4 ranks deep (not two). That's quite a hedge of bayonets. I have to admit that presents a fair old problem for war gamers because it just isn't feasible, unless your standard line formation is only 1 rank deep of figures, to depict that thickened 'line' bent back into a regular quadrilateral.