Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Some thoughts on our upcoming Albuera refight...

Regular guests to this blog will know that it is my aim to commemorate the larger of the battles of the Napoleonic Wars on or about their 200th Anniversary. I have been following the Bicentennials of these Wars since 2002 to try and get a feel for the length of these wars in terms of a human lifetime. With 1812-1815 coming up, as it were, things have been moving apace!
Next on my list is the bloody battle of Albuera, fought on the 16th May 1811, and which we will be refighting on Saturday the 14th May.

My connotations of the Battle of Albuera have changed slightly since I have to come to know more about it. I first heard of it in a very positive context, when a young teenager in the Army Cadets. We had a fantastic and memorable day as guests of the 3RD Battalion The Queen’s Regiment at their base at Connaught Barracks, Dover, one fine day in the fall of 1981. These guys really pulled out all the stops for us; we had a go on the Close Quarter Combat range in the moat, we ‘fired’ simulated MILAN Anti Tank missiles, fired real sub calibre 84mm Carl Gustav Anti Tank launchers, you name it. For a kid who didn’t get out much, it really was a red letter day!
So when the soldiers were talking about the forthcoming Albuera Day celebrations and how much they were looking forward to it, the name lodged in my memory as a positive event. They explained to us that it was unusual for  all three of the constituent Regiments that were amalgamated to form the Queen’s, at that time ‘England’s Senior Infantry Regiment’, to each have earnt a Battle Honour  at the same battle, Albuera.
I have had a long standing interest in the Peninsular campaign, but most of my favourite authors;  Weller, Glover et al. seemed to skim over it, probably because it wasn’t one of Wellington’s battles. Now that I have studied the Battle more dispassionately, mainly in light of Peter Edwards’ eminently readable but authoritative ‘Albuera’, I find that in some respects it is a disturbing battle from the allied standpoint.  A lack of leadership and direction led to appallingly high casualties, and all for little real strategic result.
Factors in designing a historical scenario.
One of the drawbacks in attempting to game a historical battle is the large number of constraints that immediately occur. Not only do you need to represent the terrain and troops present with some claim to accuracy, you also have to depict at least one on the key aspects of the original battle, or it all becomes little more that just another game.
Now I am embarrassed by a serious deficiency in the Portuguese and Spanish make up of my model armies, with the honourable and much exercised exception of the 4th Cacadores I have no Portuguese or Spanish figures in 28mm. Perhaps unfortunately Anglo-centric of me, although I defend myself with the fact that there are no cheap plastic figures for these nationalities out there yet…Fortunately my mate Jason has undertaken to provide some Loyal Lusitanian’s so the Portuguese will be represented, if not reflecting their real contribution on the day.
The Spanish Problem…
The problem comes with the Spanish contingent. In many Peninsular campaigns and battles their contribution was more in the form of intelligence and partisan activity rather than sustained formal combat, which for the usual reasons; poor administration and leadership;  they were not renowned for during this period. But any serious study of Albuera will show that on this occasion the Spanish Infantry Regiments displayed an outstanding, and for contemporaries, astounding, level of gallantry and tenacity in defence equal to that shown by their Portuguese and British counterparts. This for me makes it at least one of the key aspects of the battle that deserves reflection on my model battlefield.

Minifigs Austrians - Can I get away with using them as the Spanish ?
The only option I can think of is to represent at least a Brigade of Spanish troops by fielding my Austro-Hungarians. At least they wore white coats too! I am sure any purists will forgive this lapse in accuracy in the cause of representing the valour of these Spaniards on the day.
Key Aspects of the Battle – Soult’s outflanking move…
As well as the standout performance of the Spanish, saving Marshal Beresford’s bacon by holding off the main French thrusts for the first half of the battle whilst he attempted to reorganise, the main driver of the battle’s narrative is that Marshal Soult completely wrong footed Beresford by feinting towards the town of Albuera itself, whilst unleashing his main effort at 90 degrees from his feint, with the potential to roll up the Allied Flank from the outset.
As stated above, the stubborn resistance of part of the Spanish forces gained sufficient time for Beresford to stabilise the situations, at the expense of a close range and murderous exchange of musketry and grapeshot which saw the opposing forces thus engaged suffer over one third casualties.
The Polish Cavalry Charge…
As the British Brigades moved up in support to the right of the dogged Spanish line, they in turn suffered in the firefight and attracted the attention of a Polish Cavalry Brigade that charged their now open right flank and decimated three British regiments, capturing 5 Colours. Now as I have ample numbers of Lancers and Hussars, this is a feature of the battle I would like to recreate.
The problem comes with how to persuade the British to repeat the mistakes of the day in exposing their flank to the Polish Cavalry, since it will be hard to obscure the cavalry presence from the British commanders as occurred on the fateful day…I may have to factor in the sudden downpours which characterised this day to improve the French chances of breaking the British squares, since I will have little chance of persuading the British team to leave their Infantry in line!
Cole’s Counter attack
At this point, most authorities seem to agree that Beresford, perhaps overwhelmed with relief at not losing the entire army in one stroke, effectively relinquished control of the battle. General Cole’s division had been standing idle, due to Beresford’s concern with either, according to different sources, protecting his line of retreat, or preventing Soult from relieving Badajoz.
At this point General Cole, egged on by Colonel Hardinge decided to act decisively to exploit the exposure of the French infantry’s left flank, which was covered by Latour-Maubourg’s massed Dragoons…The sight of an entire British Division advancing in square whilst the French Cavalry decide how to respond is too good not to include in the game…
Arm Chair generalship…
On TMP and other fora I am always anxious to pounce on armchair generals who decry the decisions of real life commanders from the comfort and safety of their keyboards, and I realise that I am being very critical of Marshal Beresford. He was undoubtedly a tough and courageous man, on one occasion fighting off an attempt to capture him with his bare hands. He was also a dedicated and skilled administrator who made a major contribution to victory by reforming the Portuguese Army.  
Yet both contemporaries, and current historians with Service experience, such as Peter Edwards, have condemned his command performance on this occasion. The final word on his abilities should come from the wounded private soldiers, being visited in hospital by Lord Wellington after this battle, who upon being told by him that he was sorry to see so many of them there, responded that there would not have been so many wounded and dead had he, Wellington, been in command.. .
Additional Factors
Just as young officers have it drummed into them that terrain and environmentals are the key to making a tactical appreciation, these aspects should be reflected on the table top.
Now that I have some idea of what aspects of the battle I would ideally like to see occur in our refight, how should I set up the table orientation and scenery to reflect this?
 The main action clearly occurred to the South of Albuera itself, which is just as well since I am light on Spanish buildings.
Marshal Soult was able to make his outflanking move by using the cover of the Chirapeira River and the woods on its Eastern bank, Beresford having assessed that it was impassable, which clearly it was not. This would make a useful boundary to the Eastern side of the table, and fix the location of the part of the battle we are recreating in the player’s mind, assisting with the historical perspective.
So the terrain I will be recreating will be bounded by the outskirts of Albuera to the North and the Chirapeira to the East. The question now comes, do we play up and down the table, or across it? In terms of the early part of the action, the long drawn out firefights between initially the Spanish, and then also the Anglo Portugeuse Brigades, would best take place along the width of ‘cross’ table. But latterly the advance of Cole’s Brigade onto the flank of the French Line, all the while possibly having to contain massed Dragoon Charges, would be more nerve wracking moving the length of the 12 foot table!
I think I will settle for playing across the table on this occasision, since there are no long range artillery duels, and due to the initial dispositions of the French, I will need room to spread out both the Infantry Divisions and the Cavalry alongside to the flank…
As far as the weather is concerned, somehow I need to recreate the downpour that rendered all musketry much less effective. Since I don’t particularly wish to umpire, this may need to be done on the basis of die rolls each move…
Matching Player to commanders…
This in many ways is the most rewarding part of any scenario preparation. I try to reflect the characters and interests of my mates to the roles of the commanders. So if someone comes across as aggressive and adventurous, they get to command the cavalry, and so on. Clearly I can’t go into too much detail here, as I sincerely hope my mates will read and enjoy this blog! Potentially there could be six of us on the day, so this will require some thought…


  1. Mate for the Australian Napoleonic Congress we should have enough actual Spanish figures to put on the table!


  2. Good News...I take it you are going with Albuera then?