Guerrillas in the Peninsular War, 1809-1814
The guerrilla war in Spain is oft times referred to, both in historical accounts and literary adventures, but generally, for the English speaking reader at least, this is through the prism of the British experience in the Peninsular and firmly within the context of what was achieved by Wellington and his forces. As a rule, this tends to focus on guerrilla forces who operated with Wellington’s area of influence. This results in a rather skewed view of reality and limits the information largely to those guerrilla forces operating near the border with Portugal or in the far North of Spain during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814.
In truth, the view of guerrilla operations on the periphery of the main area of military operations results in an Anglo-centric view which largely understates the contribution made to the defeat of Napoleon’s forces in the Peninsular. Poor roads across rough terrain mean that information available to the British deployed in Portugal was rather limited, but it is important to recognize that guerrillas were active right across Spain and their actions were key to holding down vast number of French troops spread out right across the country in an attempt to create a network of garrisons and outposts which would subdue the guerrillas and allow safe passage of French supplies and messengers which were so important to keeping their armies in the field and under the orders of the Emperor.
One of the most illustrative examples of the effectiveness of guerrilla forces comes from Soult’s advance into Gallicia and then Portugal in 1809. With the British forces evacuated from Corruna, it should, in theory, have been a simple matter of Soult advancing into Portugal and overcoming any resistance from the ineffective Portuguese Army. In fact, the commitment of troops to garrison the supply lines reduced Soult’s force from 40,000 to just 20,000 effectives.
Advancing in two separate columns, in true Napoleonic fashion, Soult was horrified to discover that any attempt to communicate between the two forces failed utterly as messengers were intercepted and, consequently, both forces advanced blindly forwards. What was more, foraging parties were intercepted, making reliance on the supply columns even more pronounced.
Where firm opposition was encountered, such as at Braga and Oporto, the French were more than capable of beating any force which stood against them, but with the enemy defeated the problems were simply exacerbated by even longer supply lines. What was more, defeated Spanish and Portuguese forces did not surrender, but remained in the field, harassing French garrisons protecting lines of communication. Indeed, such activities diverted Soult from the threat of British forces now landing in northern Portugal and, with Portuguese regular and irregular forces threatening his line of retreat, Soult was obliged to surrender Oporto to Wellington’s forces on May the 9th before undertaking a harsh retreat back into Spain. When the French arrived back at Orense in Spain just over a week later they were starving and had abandoned large amounts of equipment.
It is important to stress that whilst Wellington delivered the coup de gras at Oporto, the groundwork was done by the guerrilla force. Indeed, this combination of irregular and regular force was the key to the defeat of the Spanish in the Peninsular. Wellington’s British contingent was not strong enough to take the war aggressively into Spain, time was needed to build up Portuguese forces to assist with this task. However, the French were theoretically there in sufficient numbers to take on the British and win, especially when after Bailen Napoleon committed troops in large numbers. However, endless guerrilla activity ensured that the French were never able to concentrate their forces in the numbers necessary to defeat the British and their allies. What they did do was encourage the French to commit their troops in penny packets which the British forces, despite their limited numbers, could then take on and defeat.
For the French, the counter-insurgency war was one which dragged on interminably. The impact on their troops was both physical and psychological and mirrored many of the more recent wars of counter-insurgency which have littered the twentieth century. Indeed, one can see clear parallels with the forces of Benito Juarez in Mexico facing the French backed Imperial forces of the Emperor Maximilian. At no point were the guerrilla forces attempting to take on French armies in the field. Their objective was to harass, to blind their enemy by intercepting messengers, to ensure that the local population did not trade with the French and to limit the effectiveness of their opponent by keeping a tight squeeze on his supplies, both of food and ammunition.
The key issue for the French was a divided command throughout Spain, with each region coming under the control of a different military governor, each of whom was able to implement his own policies in combatting the threat. The system of patronage within the French Empire was similar to a later dictatorship, that of Nazi Germany, where individual successes and failures were recognized and rewarded by one single figure of authority, Napoleon. This was not a system which encouraged cooperation and mutual support. Indeed, in Spain it led to a whole raft of different approaches being taken, some more successful than others.
For the French solider, the threat of violence at any moment led to incredible stress and physical illness. Sentries were carried off by invisible enemies every night. In October 1809 in Pamplona the French garrison awoke to discover that the bodies of three guerillas they had hanged had been replaced by three French soldiers. Indeed, tit for tat killings happened everywhere in a spiraling orgy of death. In retaliation for their three soldiers being hanged, the French retaliated by hanging fifteen Priests. When the 15th Regiment of Chasseurs found that thirty of their troopers had been executed by guerillas in the town of Tamames near Salamanca, they in turn massacred 1,500 Spanish prisoners. There can be no doubt that the killing disgusted almost all on both sides, but breaking out of a spiral of reprisal killing was not easy and the guerrillas were not above inflicting capital punishment on Spanish peasants who they deemed had assisted the invaders by supplying food.
In 1809 25% of the French forces in Spain were not fit for duty due to illness; in Allied contingents that figure reached 30%. The relationship with the local population was one of distrust and, ultimately, hatred born of fear. Where the British could supply their forces by sea, moving supplies up to two hundred miles in a day, the French solider was reliant on columns crossing the Pyrenees which moved at best twenty miles and demanded significant forces to defend them. Constantly called upon for such escort duties the French solider was exhausted.
In 1809, a French escort for a messenger would be up to two dozen mounted troopers. By the summer of 1810, the same job was being undertaken by between 500 and 1000 men. By 1812 several thousand troops were required to accompany a single messenger. In 181 General Roch Godart left Burgos for Bayonne, a journey of 200 miles. The convoy was made up of thirty carriages of Staff Officers, 200 carts carrying wounded, 300 prisoners and 100 officer returning to France. The escort for this body was eight companies of Grenadiers and Voltigeurs, 100 gendarmes a pied, fifty gendarmes a cheval and two cannon. En route, they would encounter numerous block houses manned by detachments of thirty or forty men under an officer as well as other flying columns of men tasked with keeping a short section of road free of the enemy. It was a colossal drain on manpower and being diverted to “rear area duties” was not a cushy number. The 3rd Battalion of the 116th Regiment arrived in theatre in June of 1811 from their depot in France. When they left Spain a year later they were reduced to 205 effectives. This was no flash in the pan, the 4th battalion was reduced to just 200 men.
The more liberal elements in Spanish society which approved of the regime of King Joseph were largely motivated by their support of the age of enlightenment and, consequent opposition to the arch-conservative Bourbon monarchy and traditional church. Yet even these were Spaniards whose support was tempered with mistrust of the invader. It was only in the Basque and Catalan regions that the French were effective in recruiting contra-guerilla forces, but these had their own agendas. For the most part Spaniards who sympathised with the French, the afrancesados, found themselves friendless and in extreme danger of reprisals from their countrymen and often with little hope of assistance from the French.
Whilst the above paints a bleak situation for the French soldier in Spain, there were some successes. Marshall Suchet operating at the extremities of the French lines of communication in Aragon, was successful in implementing strategies which paid dividends and largely pacified the region. An emphasis was put on occupying major towns and nodal points in force and with large amounts of supplies to ensure their freedom from a network of supply trains. From there the emphasis shifted to small unit tactics, something the French were not well trained to undertake. Now Company sized elements or smaller would patrol aggressively from a secure base. When guerrilla forces were identified, Brigade-sized attacks would be launched, with other friendly forces positioned to support the attack or deny the enemy a route of retreat. All very modern stuff.
What is best about the guerrilla war in the Peninsular is that it does present us with a fabulous backdrop for Sharp Practice games. Fortunately, the Spanish Junta defined the organisation of a Guerilla Partida for us, allowing us to put together our forces. One Commandante headed the Partida with a second in command. Two mounted subalterns would command up to fifty mounted men, with three subalterns commanding a similar number of men on foot. The mounted troops could be armed with either the lance or be acting as mounted infantry, using the musket and knife prescribed for foot troops.
Any French or Allied troops can be used to fight the guerrillas and the organisation of guerrilla forces can be wide and varied. However, the following lists should provide a starting point for such games. Guerrilla lists can also be used by British, Spanish and Portuguese regular forces as support options.