The Biggest Cavalry Battle of the Peninsular War!
The Battle of Ocana: The Army of Spain’s Greatest Triumph by Pierre Juhel
This book has been on my radar for some time. But it’s been several years in the publishing, so to say I was excited when it arrived in the post was understating the case. That it turned out to be something of a curate’s egg may simply be over-expectation on my part.
The problem with battles fought solely between French and Spanish armies is that accounts of them in English are rare. And this one’s a biggie, because Ocana is chiefly memorable for the largest cavalry action, in terms of the total number of combatants, during the entire Peninsular war. Yet one Spanish monograph apart, little has been written about the affair.
I suppose that’s understandable to a degree. Despite it being a great French victory, the war in Iberia was ultimately considered a pretty futile sideshow to cataclysmic events elsewhere in Napoleonic Europe. British historians never really took an interest because Wellington’s small army was not involved and for the Spanish, Ocana was a huge disaster so best swept quietly under the carpet.
What made it all the more interesting for me was the Spanish outnumbered the French, especially in cavalry, so there seemed no good reason why they should have lost. And if they had beaten Marshal Soult, in command at that time, they could have marched on the Spanish capital Madrid, seat of Napoleon’s brother King Joseph. Who knows what might have happened then?
But the French triumphed and gave the book it’s slightly confusing subtitle. The Spanish army was called the Army of the Centre, in case you were wondering, because they did have more than one.
The first two-thirds of the book is given over to a brief introduction of what had gone before, the reasons the Spanish decided to march on Madrid without British help, and the better known ‘personalities’ involved. The author’s description of both armies’ manoeuvres prior to the battle is fairly brief and I would have preferred more background, particularly from the Spanish viewpoint, but hey – maybe there’s no accessible archive material available.
In what I guess is a nod in Osprey’s direction, the book is full (some might say over-full) of very good illustrations and this particular section is a wargamer’s dream. Every regiment that took part is listed, within its Division, and in the majority of cases with its commander. But most importantly, specially commissioned colour illustrations show their uniforms in great detail, along with examples of the standards individual regiments carried.
The last third concentrates on the battle itself. The author provides more detail than I’ve come across before – there are a number of decent maps – and of particular interest are translated despatches from French generals Sebastiani, Soult and Mortier, which I’ve not seen previously, together with Spanish commander General Ariezaga’s report on the outcome and General Zayas’ despatch explaining how the Spanish right wing was routed. This section also includes a number of short inserts, mostly from a French viewpoint, on the use of ambulances at the battle, casualty returns, subsequent recommendations for honours etc, all based on letters and despatches written at the time and the inclusion of which adds interest to the narrative.
Juhel’s patriotism shows. That’s not a problem – British historians are (mostly) the same – but there’s far less information presented on the Spanish army than I would have liked. My other minor gripe is the text itself is in a pretty small font given the book’s large format, which makes it a difficult read in poor light. Anyone who’s struggled with the paperback version of Charles Esdaile’s otherwise excellent ‘The Peninsular War’ will know what I mean!
So it was an okay book – 3.5 to 4 stars. As the battle is so rarely written about, if I were a Grande Armee fanatic I’d probably give it a 5. And it’s likely an essential if you’re either a keen wargamer or interested in period Spanish army strategy but can’t read the language.
It just left me with the feeling I’d missed something, though.
The Battle of Ocana: The Army of Spain’s Greatest Triumph by Pierre O. Juhel
ISBN 9-782352-501510 Publisher: Histoire & Collections Hardback: 235 x 315mm Pages: 111