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.


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?!