8000 Horsemen! What’s not to like?

•February 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 

The Biggest Cavalry Battle of the Peninsular War!

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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

And the infantry think they had it tough…

•January 4, 2014 • 2 Comments

copyright NAM

Own a horse? They’re a lot of work, aren’t they?

I’ve always said Wellington’s infantry had an easy life compared to his cavalry, whatever they might have complained to the contrary. After all, the only thing a footslogger needed to do at the end of a day’s march was cook his dinner and clean his weapon, whereas the poor dragoon had to do that PLUS see to his horse.

And here’s the proof, albeit this was the routine in barracks (and in 1830) where stabling, feed and bedding were on hand rather than at the whim of the commissary officer, if he was even up with the advance, or the individual dragoon’s foraging abilities if not.

Many thanks to Grenadiers a Cheval for the link.

Read it and weep! ;)

Royal North British Dragoon – A Day In The Life

Last of the Light Brigade…?

•January 1, 2014 • 1 Comment
Copyright National Army Museum

Copyright National Army Museum

 

Earl Cardigan wasn’t well-liked, but his horse was obviously well cared for so he couldn’t have been all bad.

To start the New Year off on a note slightly brighter than the sky overhead at the mo, here’s an article about Cardigan’s charger on that fateful day, 25th October 1854. It’s a few years old, but none the worse for that.

What about Ronald?

Somosierra – Poland’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’

•November 30, 2013 • 7 Comments

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Napoleon inspired such obedience and devotion in his troops they would often perform seeming miracles when ordered.

On this day 205 years ago, the Emperor’s march on Madrid was brought to an abrupt halt at the Somosierra Pass. Spaniards had blocked its narrow track with a series of  four gun batteries, one following the other. Sweeping the width of the valley with a deadly and almost impenetrable hail of canister and roundshot, these had defeated the best efforts of Napoleon’s infantry and cavalry to capture them.

An impasse, then.

Until the Emperor ordered forward a single cavalry squadron – Polish Chevaux-Legers (Light Horse) from his Imperial Guard. Commonly known nowadays as ‘Polish Lancers’ (although they weren’t actually issued with lances until 1809) these men forced their way past three batteries until, their numbers reduced to a mere handful, the final gun line was retaken by the Spaniards before French cavalry reinforcements arrived and the enemy were driven from the pass.

If anything the tale is even more incredible than Britain’s disaster in the Crimea almost 50 years later. For this suicidal charge was the result of a direct and calculated order, rather than muddle and mistake. The muddle came later, when a number of French officers claimed credit for leading the charge to glory, one famous general laughed when told of his supposed part in it, and many versions of the event did the rounds.

Facts are still disputed today, but I prefer to believe the Poles’ own version which you can find here:

Battle of Somosierra Pass

Somosierra is such a great story that I was determined to use it in Leopardkill. So I wangled one character’s involvement, and here’s the beginning of that chapter:

30th November 1808

 Somosierra Pass, Old Castille

 

17

 

A roundshot tore a rent in the fog curtain. With a practiced artilleryman’s eye, still true after years spent away from serving his beloved guns, Bonaparte saw immediately the deadly iron sphere’s fall posed him no danger and raised his telescope once more to peer ahead. Dense mist shrouding the valley was so mixed with gunsmoke the Emperor found it impossible to see more than fifty yards, even from his viewpoint halfway up the steep valley-side. But he caught a hint of movement in the murk. News perhaps, at last, of how the battle progressed.

The roundshot smashed into a rock twenty paces away, exploding stone shards in every direction before ricocheting off to Bonaparte’s right. His pale grey Arabian horse jibbed at the noise, forcing him to steady the animal before he could keep the spyglass still.

Wraiths appeared from the fog: men on foot, then cavalry. A horseman’s silhouette: another to his right, then another. The left-most horse stumbled and fell, pitching its rider headlong. The leading cavalryman was bareheaded, Bonaparte noticed.

Another whistle made the Emperor look up. This time the thin, pencil line the shot seemed to make in the sky was drawn straight at him. Spanish gunners had somehow found his range though they were firing blind. He must move.

Reining his horse to the right, Bonaparte allowed the animal to pick its way at an angle across the scree slope, heading back towards the bulk of his waiting army. He heard the second roundshot fall amongst rocks behind him, crash unnerving his horse so it scuttled downhill, nimbly skipping rocks in its path.

At the foot of the incline the Emperor skidded to a halt amongst a group of officers wearing masks of expectation. “Well?” he demanded.

“There is no news, your majesty.”

“Pah!” Bonaparte erupted, “I can see for myself. Explain to me, Victor, why you cannot move a few peasants?”

“Sire, they have cannon mounted to sweep the pass. My men cannot get through.” Marshal Victor stopped abruptly as all other heads turned towards two approaching horsemen coated with dirt and dust. Staff officers nudged their own mounts aside to allow the pair through the scrum around Bonaparte.

The Emperor nodded as both men saluted. Hatless, the senior officer began to report, “Sire, it is an impossible task!”

Bonaparte shook his head, “Pire, Pire – you should realise by now nothing is impossible, nothing. General Montbrun!”

Montbrun scrubbed at his moustache, “Your majesty?”

The Emperor gave a small smile, “Send in my Poles. And Montbrun…”

“Yes, sire?”

“They must force the pass. You know what to tell them.”

As Bonaparte’s general of dragoons turned his horse away from the group, the Emperor spoke directly to Pire’s companion. “Lieutenant Tirenne, I see you are wounded. You should go to the rear.”

Tirenne glanced down at the tear in the left leg of his breeches and a slowly spreading stain blackening the material across his thigh, “A scratch, sire,” he said, tiredly. “I would rejoin my regiment, if your majesty will allow?”

“As you wish,” Bonaparte said. He stared at Tirenne as the lieutenant rode after Montbrun. “Marshal Bessieres,” he addressed the commander of the Imperial Guard cavalry once the boy was out of earshot, “I trust you find my recruit satisfactory?”

“He takes much upon himself, sire,” the marshal grumbled. “And he is…”

“Intelligent?”

“Too clever by half.”

“Hah! Too clever for you, you mean,” Bonaparte retorted. If Tirenne had put Bessieres’ nose out of joint in so short a time perhaps he was man enough for the task the Emperor had in mind.

Paul Tirenne’s horse jogged downhill, keen to catch Montbrun’s mount. As the pair drew level the general twisted in the saddle.

“I was sorry to hear of your father’s illness,” Montbrun said. “I remember…” he paused to steer his horse around a boulder, “… he sat you on a remount at barracks: years ago.” He smiled at the memory, “You were tiny.”

“I cannot remember,” Tirenne admitted, “now he would not.” Then he was silent. The tear in his thigh from a Spanish bayonet stung horribly.

They came to a halt in the valley bottom. Montbrun beckoned at the leading squadron of chevaux-legers and Tirenne watched one officer walk his horse forward. Uniform still clean, the tall, square-topped czapska on his head was proudly adorned with Imperial Guard insignia. Stopping in front of Montbrun he gave a brisk salute.

“Officer Kozietulski,” Montbrun announced, “the Emperor commands you take the guns.”

The Pole stared at Montbrun for a second then with a curt nod spun his horse around, heading back to his squadron at a gallop. Tirenne watched him pass along the line of men and horses, while to shouted orders the Polish light horsemen formed themselves into one long column of march, four abreast.

Once he reached the column’s tail Kozietulski turned and trotted back. “Draw swords! Draw swords!”  Lieutenants and sergeants raised their voices to echo commands. One hundred and fifty sabres scraped from iron scabbards.

“Walk…march!” The column started forward; an impatient mass of trembling, sweating horseflesh. Saddles creaked, curb chains rattled.

“Trot…march!”  Six hundred iron-shod feet drummed the rocky ground. Kozietulski kicked his horse into a canter to pass his men, pulling to a halt ahead of the squadron. There he could watch the fours trot past as they headed up the valley towards dirty grey gloom masking enemy guns. “On, you sons of bitches,” the Pole roared encouragement, “the Emperor is watching you!”

The chevaux-legers disappeared into fog and gunsmoke. General Montbrun returned to Bonaparte’s fold, no doubt to await news of this attack’s success, since it seemed inconceivable the Emperor would accept yet another failure. Tirenne should rejoin his regiment of chasseurs in the melee of horsemen further to the rear but something made him stay. Perhaps he needed to see how the Poles fared in the maelstrom of fire and steel which, minutes earlier, sucked him in before spitting him back out, filthy and bleeding.

He was still lost in thought as another group of Polish horsemen approached, horses sweaty and uniforms dishevelled. A returning patrol, only a half-troop strong.

“Paul!” Lieutenant Andrzej Niegolewski was around Tirenne’s age and they had struck up an easy friendship on their march across Spain. “What’s happening?”

Tirenne was thankful Niegolewski spoke French, for his few words of Polish were barely enough to order a drink in their mess.

“Should we go?” Niegolewski began after Tirenne’s hurried explanation, but a roll of thunder made both turn to look up the valley, into the smoke which had swallowed Kozietulski’s horsemen. “Jesus,” Niegolewski crossed himself. They sat silent on their horses as the rumble reverberated down the valley to be replaced with a fainter crackle of musket fire. Fog-smoke swirled like a living thing, muffling sounds of battle, so when the cannonade finally stopped it was several seconds before they realised.

The two looked at one another and Tirenne spoke their joint, incredulous thought, “They’ve taken the battery!”

“Form in twos!” Niegolewski screamed at his men, “Open order!” He glanced at Tirenne, “Will you join us, lieutenant?”

For an instant, fear twitched Tirenne’s gut but he had found only one way to deal with that feeling: he drew his sabre.

Niegolewski gave a grim smile, “Troop will advance!” He drew his own sword, pointing its curved blade towards the billowing grey wall veiling only God knew what horrors, “Trot…march!”

Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon

•November 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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WOW!

Thanks to Sarah from the Napoleonic Wars Forum, here’s a link to the screenplay of Kubrick’s never-made homage to the Emperor. I remember a few of these being offered on Ebay a couple of years ago for loadsamoney, though whether they sold is anyone’s guess.

And yes, I did notice the revolver on page 12, so it could do with an edit!

Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon Screenplay

Apparently Mr Spielberg is looking at the possibility of a mini-series based on this document, so hooray for that :)

Dic Penderyn. Who???

•November 16, 2013 • 2 Comments

dic penderyn

Not cavalry, though there’s a tenuous military connection, and not Napoleonic either. But as a Welshman I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share this post on the (in)famous Merthyr Riots which shows, in a small way, the power wielded by 19th century ruling classes.

Just as well things have changed somewhat. I think.

The Merthyr Riots, 1831

A surgeon in the Peninsula – George Guthrie

•October 28, 2013 • 3 Comments

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While trundling around the net the other day (honest – I was researching!) I came across this excellent post on one of the more famous Peninsula surgeons, George Guthrie.

Author Mick Crumplin is both eminent surgeon and historian himself -  in fact you’ve probably seen him on TV.  And this article was written for the Waterloo 200 website a couple of years ago. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in Wellington’s army.

Guthrie’s War

 

 
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