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"Spanish guerillas rubbish?" Topic

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©1994-2017 Bill Armintrout
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ocollens Supporting Member of TMP25 Aug 2017 1:17 p.m. PST

Or so I had always believed. Yes, maybe they had some strategic value, cutting the throats of couriers and tying up French garrisons but as for fighting on a war-game table – no way. No rules I know encouraged me to paint scruffy blokes with bad teeth and a blunderbuss.
But then I read Nick Lipscombe's Wellington's Eastern Front. This book gently informed me that there was a lot I did not know about about the Peninsula War. In particular I came across what to me was a surprising passage. Here it is.

"General Paris had been driven out of Saragossa by Duran's (irregular) division. Paris had decided to follow Clausel's footsteps and move back to France via the pass at Jaca. He lost a great many of his men and all his baggage en route. This loss of 5000 men was a bitter blow to Suchet."

I can find no information on this action. I assume Paris is Baron Marie Auguste Paris (died 1814) and Duran is Jose Joaquin Duran y Barazabal. But that is as my lot.

Any offers

Jcfrog Supporting Member of TMP25 Aug 2017 1:52 p.m. PST

But to be cautious Spanish 1808-13 tend to be over enthousiatic for their suceses and very shy of their failures.
Suchet in memoirs just say Paris got ambushed lost a lot of people and baggage. The Spanish had good die rolls for a change on this one.

Jcfrog Supporting Member of TMP25 Aug 2017 1:52 p.m. PST

But to be cautious Spanish 1808-13 tend to be over enthousiatic for their suceses and very shy of their failures.
Suchet in memoirs just say Paris got ambushed lost a lot of people and baggage. The Spanish had good die rolls for a change on this one.

Personal logo Extra Crispy Sponsoring Member of TMP25 Aug 2017 2:21 p.m. PST

I would only play Guerillas in ambush type scenarios. A company facing off against another.

They were far more regular than you think. They were mostly (simply) uniformed and fought like line troops, not brigands. Esdaile's book is quite eye opening onthe subject:


plutarch 6426 Aug 2017 5:27 a.m. PST

I can vaguely recall that there was a guerrilla unit at Fuentes d'Onoro which deployed, but which remained unengaged and quit the field halfway through the battle.

They also counted a number of regular troops amongst their members from memory, mainly from regiments that had either not been paid or who had been dispersed in battle.

As Extra Crispy indicates I'm fairly sure I also read about this in one of Esdaile's books, in my case probably 'The Peninsular War'.

4harrisons26 Aug 2017 7:28 a.m. PST

In general I think the regulars were more impactful that the guerilla as such – and certainly more important for the outcome of the war than most English languages histories make out. But as Esdaile points out those 'regulars' got dispersed in battle and reformed into make shift units so frequently that it's hard to distinguish them from 'guerilla' as such, and specific unit histories are hard to trace. On top of this there were large numbers of longer or shorter lived 'militia' type units as well which might be formed around a core of regulars with local 'volunteers' bolted on.

There are a number of small actions in Andalucia which include units of this type, so well worth modelling.

ocollens Supporting Member of TMP26 Aug 2017 11:10 a.m. PST

Thank you all for your responses.

My Spanish is very basic but probably should try searching Spanish language sites.

I did look in Esdaile's Peninsula War and since posting Fighting Napoleon. He does not refer specifically to this action but does agree that Duran's Soria Division developed into a powerful opponent.

I imagine these forces developed over time. I knew that they were formed around a core of 'regular' soldiers. What I suspect is that these, out of necessity, became something like light infantry even if they started as line. And by 1813 the survivors might be called veterans. Equally some technically non-guerilla armies like Copons in Catalonia could operate like partizan forces.

Glenn Pearce28 Aug 2017 7:14 a.m. PST

Hello ocollens!

I'm afraid that your a victim (like most of us) that the Spanish were extremely bad troops and the guerillas were nothing better than brigands. Sadly a large number of rules perpetuate this myth.

Some Spanish troops were exceptional and some guerilla bands were absorbed into the Spanish army.

So on the table top you can rate your guerillas anywhere from poor to average. A lot depends on leadership and experience. You need rules that support these qualities not myths.

Best regards,


Teodoro de Reding28 Aug 2017 4:25 p.m. PST

There were guerrillas and guerrillas. The 'partidas' as guerrillas (as opposed to brigands) were known were all almost all led by officers who had a government warrant to do so. At the beginning, 1808, many of the units sniping against the French, cutting off couriers etc. were local militias, as stated. Most guerrilla bands got bigger and bigger (absorbing others and putting down bandits), became more professional and ended up as regiments in the Spansh Army. El Empecinadao, who operated south of Madrid, has a deal going with Hugo, governor of Madrid (Victor's father) to exchange prisoners. His regiment ws the first Spanish unit to enter Madrid n 1812. By 1814, several f the important bands in Northern Spain had become army divisions (e.g. Mina, Longa, Porlier) and the last of the 5 or 6 official 'armies' was made up largely of such divisions.

Almost all Spanish regular (and levy) troops were very brave – but brittle. The could hardly manoeuvre till 1813-14, and they panicked and routed if outflanked, but when fighting frontally, or behind fortifications they fought very well. The French were just much more professional at every level from army to company and, (on the battlefield) far more disciplined. The weaknesses of Spanish irregulars and new regiments (always formed round a cadre of veterans except in Catalonia and Aragon where there were almost none) were bad when they were infantry but were totally catastrophic in cavalry. And many f not most guerrilla partidas were actually cavalry (think Mexicans in Westerns).

basileus6629 Aug 2017 1:39 a.m. PST

Actually, it was a little more complicated than what stereotypes would like to make us believe. The irregular component of the Spanish insurgency wasn't homogeneous. You can find from temporary bands, which were operative for a single action, to brigade-sized units that ended the war enroled in the lists of the Spanish regular army. Part of the División Iberia, formed around the guerrilla band organized by Francisco Longa in 1809, even participated in the invasion of Southern France. But don't think that the process of militarization was general or that affected all warbands. Some of them never reached that stage, either because the men deserted, were absorbed by a larger band or the band was dispersed by the action of the French.

Others were in the process of militarization when the region where were operating was liberated by the Allied armies, and either were incorporated into regular regiments or absconded to their homes -technically, it was desertion but many volunteers that had joined a guerrilla band were nothing more than civilians and when the threat of the French invasion receded they believe that they could continue with their normal lifes. Think of them as militiamen integrated in local self-defence forces, rather than as guerrilleros, and you won't be too far off the mark.

Strategically, the insurgency was a headache for the French. In early 1811, for instance, in the area of operations assigned to the French Army of the North there were around 7,000 to 8,000 active partisans. The region included Navarra, Basque Country, Palencia, Burgos, Rioja and northern Valladolid. To cover and pacify this region, Napoleon had assigned a force of 74,000, although only roughly 68,000 were actually operational at any given time. It included two brigades of the Young Guard, under Roguet, plus several squadrons of the Imperial Gendarmerie and of the Lanciers du Berg, Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard and even one squadron of the Grenadiers a Cheval. In other words, they weren't second rate troops. Most of the Armee du Nord, was deployed covering the line of communications in the road Valladolid-Burgos-Vitoria-San Sebastian, in the road Madrid-Burgos-Vitoria-San Sebastian, and in the road Burgos-Pamplona-Jaca; i.e. most of them were deployed protecting interior lines of comunication, not in the coastline.

In that moment the only direct military threat that could have justified such deployment was partisan activity, as no regular Allied army was in a position, at the time, of threaten those roads, nor the Imperials were deployed in such a fashion as to protect the coastline from Spanish-British raids. Compare that with the roughly 8,000 men assigned to general Bonet in Asturias -operationally he was an independent command, although organically and for supplies depended from the Armee du Nord-, who was in direct contact with the Spanish forces in Western Asturias and Galicia, plus had assigned the mission to protect the coastline between Gijón and Santander. Of course, the mission of the Armee du Nord wasn't just a passive defence and anti-partisan operations. Napoleon intended that the Imperial guard troops would act as a strategic reserve in case the British broke out from Portugal towards Valladolid. However, until early 1812, when withdraw to France to participate in the incoming war with Russia, most of the Imperial Guard units assigned to the Armee du Nord only fought guerrillas, or, to be more precise, became exhausted through constant marches and counter-marches pursuing "partidas" that refused to fight if they didn't feel they had an advantage.

It wasn't exceptional, though. In Eastern Andalucía, in 1810-1811, Soult had around 4,000 men deployed in Ronda-Malaga-Fuengirola, with most if them covering the roads in the interior. At that moment, the threat to the region was -from the French point of view- double: in one hand the possibility of incursions from regular forces withdrawed from the lines of defence in Cadiz or from Gibraltar, and the militia-like forces of self-defence in the Serranía de Ronda.

A further example is the campaign of Suchet against Tarragona and the Spanish army of Catalonia, under the marquis of Campoverde. At the start of the campaign, in May 1811, Suchet had under his orders about 43,000 men. He was forced to leave protecting his lines of comunication with France through Aragón, 20,304 men, taking with him 22,762 men. Actually, Napoleon thought that Suchet's force was too weak to accomplish its intended mission, and therefore he assigned to Suchet 10,000 additional men from the Army of Catalonia -which allowed a respite to the Catalonian patriots, that had been severely pressed by the French up to that moment-. The only credible threats to Suchet's LOC came from Duran's, Villacampa's, Empecinado's and Espoz's volunteer forces operating in Guadalajara, Soria, Navarra and Señorío de Molina. The deployment of the main garrisons proves that Suchet had in mind those forces as the most probable threats: 3,659 men at Molina de Aragón (44eme Regiment and 3eme Legion of the Vistula, under general Paris); at Cinco Villas, covering the approaches from Navarra, 2,539 men (14eme Regiment and 2eme Legion of the Vistula, under Chlopiscki); and 4,227 men in the area Albarracín-Checa-Orihuela del Tremedal (114eme and 121eme Regiments, under Abbé). To put this deployment in context, Empecinado's and Espoz's forces were organized as divisions -actually, brigade sized- around former guerrilla bands; while Villacampa's and Duran's were from the beggining organized around a core of regular soldiers and volunteers, and operated as light divisions but in regions technically under French control, which has made many historians to treat them as guerrilleros -I disagree with that label, by the way.

The presence of guerrillas in a region had a deletereous effect upon French operations. It supposed three direct threats to be dealt with, and one indirect, more subtle but more harmful in the long term that the former. The direct threats were the attacks and potential ambushes of French convoys -supplies, wounded, pay, loot- and messengers, and against isolated garrisons or outposts. Convoys and messengers needed to be protected by battalion-sized, or even brigade-sized columns of troops. That was a terrible effort, but also wasted a lot of time while the escort was being organized. In March 1811, Bessieres, for instance, was forced to wait for a week at Bayona while the escort of the convoy he had joined was being organized (2,000 Polish, 500 Gendarmes a pied, and 80 Hussars).

The indirect threat I mentioned was that against potential Spanish sympathizers of the French. One of the main problems the French occupation faced in Spain was that king Jose was never able to create a civil administration that could have acted like an alternative source of legitimacy. The guerrillas were responsible of that failure. Through threats or, if that failed, direct violence, partisans imposibilitated that Spanish sympathizers joined the ranks of the civil service being organized by king Joseph.

Operationally speaking insurgent warfare in Spain wasn't homogeneous either. You can find small actions, involving barely a dozen men, up to formal combats with thousands of combatants in both sides. The more common was the small action, involving an average of 100-300 partisans. Typical would be an attack against a convoy, in the road between two garrisons. The partisans needed to overwhelm the escort as fast as possible, before the garrisons could organize a column to succour the escort. Also very common were attacks on garrisons. Usually, the garrison had fortified a building in the town, commonly a house made of stone, a church or a monastery, where they could withdraw in case of being attacked by overwhelming forces. There they could withstand the siege until relieved by stronger columns. Not always worked, though. At Calatayud (October 1811) the French garrison -included several Spanish volunteers that were shot after the surrender- was forced to surrender after Duran defeated the relief column organized in Zaragoza.

Guerrillas, even the better organized, suffered from two problems: tactically, they weren't well trained and were very vulnerable to French cavalry -see actions at Belorado or El Rebollar-; and second, they were in short supply of powder, more often than not. For instance, in the second ambush in the gorge of Arlaban, Espoz y Mina ordered his troops to give a single volley and then charge home… it was tactically sound and it worked, but the reason was no other than the Navarrese only had a supply of powder for a maximum of two shots! Espoz knew that he would be at a disadvantage if the action became a firefight.

I hope this information serves you of some help. Any question, don't hesitate to ask.


4th Cuirassier29 Aug 2017 3:25 a.m. PST

@ Basileus

What an absolutely terrific, informative and thought-provoking post. As always from you, quite honestly. I really appreciate your contributions.

I have been reading around the subject of British invasion preparations of late. In 1806, Britain had at home a force of about 75,000 regulars, 50,000 militia infantry, and about 220,000 volunteers. Regionally organised into 20-odd military districts, there would have been about 10,000 or so irregulars per such district.

From what you have posted above, it seems quite likely that an invading French force could, as in Spain, have needed 20 to 50,000 troops to hold down any region. 10,000 Spanish irregulars can gather and attack anywhere and thus the French need to be in similar strength everywhere within the region to counter them.

This handicap to the French is only partly ameliorated by the disadvantages under which the irregulars operate. Some are of doubtful military value, but how doubtful they actually are you don't find out until you engage them. Even then, it is circumstantial. In an impassable position – defending a roadblock in a ravine – they can be pretty resilient. Opposing them in the open with cavalry works but if the cavalry have to dismount then it gets harder.

The partisan campaign feels to me like one that needs a completely different approach. It is probably historically justifiable to dismiss the irregulars as line troops for pitched battles (which is where most English language studies focus), but not always.

basileus6629 Aug 2017 3:40 a.m. PST

I forgot to coment about an issue that has worried historians… excesively, in my opinion. Where the guerrillas patriots or brigands? Heroes or villains? There is not a consensus between historians. For some, they were patriots fighting for the freedom of their country, even revolutionaries -indeed, that was the thesis of Artola or Jean René Aymes-. John Tone was less sanguine and saw the partisans, particularly those in Navarra, as a conservative peasantry that was suspicious of the modernizing policies brought up by the French, and that wouldn't accept impositions from outsiders. Revisionists like Esdaile had gone the other extreme, and has regarded the partisans as nothing better than brigands moved by greed and ambition, not patriotism. Esdaile goes even further and sees the guerrillas as a nuisance at best, or really harmful to the Allied war effort -alienating the villages and towns from the patriotic cause through their depredations.

Actually, it is not that simple. As I said before, it didn't exist an archetypical guerrilla. Moreover, in that period the difference between public service and private benefit wasn't clearly separated. Nobody would cast doubt about the patriotism of the captains of the Royal Navy, and yet it is also undeniable that they were moved by greed and ambition. In a time when social security didn't exist, greed was an adaptative evolutionary trait. If you suffered mutilation or simply grew old enough to be unable to work, you better had the resources to survive or else. An individual could be a perfect patriot, willing to sacrifice limb and life for his country, and at the same time without scruples to obtain an economic benefit from his service. Spanish partisans weren't different. For them, service and benefit were sides of the same coin -and when their services went unrewarded after the war, many of them casted their lot with Liberal revolutionaries.

In their origin, many guerrillas were a mixed lot. Sometimes -as in the case of Francisquete band- were formed by peasants related by kinship and/or friendship; they were motivated by the drive to protect their produce from French depredatory practices, but they didn't stop there and continued their activities even after the French had abandoned the immediate area and their crops weren't under threat anymore. Also frequent were the partidas formed around a core of dispersed soldiers that hadn't abandoned their weapons after a defeat, that being isolated in the strategic rear of the French decided to continue fighting; to that nucleus of soldiers joined local peasants -usually, young men-, either already organized as a guerrilla band or not.

Then you need to consider those guerrillas that were organized as free corps or light divisions. Some, as that of El Empecinado and Espoz y Mina, were formed under the theoretical supervision of the local Juntas -provincial or regional government bodies-, and politically subordinated to them. Commonly, a core of existing "partidas" formed the cadres of the new volunteer units, to which local recruits, dispersed soldiers and deserters joined at a later time. While the guerrilla leaders themselves could be unaware of existing military literature -although Longa and Espoz probably knew some traditional text on small warfare that had been translated into Spanish-, the political authorities that created the light divisions or corps weren't. The influence of the treatises of the XVIIIth Century theorists on light troops and small warfare is very obvious in the organizational charts of the new forces. They weren't thought as forces to form in the battleline -although some of them would, in time- but to harass enemy convoys, foraging parties and garrisons, impede the collection of intelligence by their light troops, to hinder their communications and interdict the ability to create a viable civilian administration that would be loyal to the adversary in occupied territories.

That the French called them "brigands" should have been expected. It was a word charged with political meaning, not just a descriptive. "Brigand" served as catch-it-all word to describe both political rebels and actual robbers and highwaymen -Vendean rebels were labelled as brigands by their revolutionary opponents, for instance.


basileus6629 Aug 2017 3:55 a.m. PST

@4th Cuirassier

Thanks for your kind words.

You are mostly correct on your analysis. From my research I have been able to reach the conclusion that at the time, the French needed a minimum of a 7 to 1 or maybe 8 to 1 ratio over the partisans just to check their activities and put them on the run. A lower ratio and the initiative would be handed back to the guerrillas. Therefore for 3,000 partisans operating in a given region, the French needed 21,000-24,000 men just to put them on the defensive. To pacify the region it would have needed stronger forces. Those ratios, of course, could be lower in those regions where French cavalry could operate more freely, i.e. where the French could project force at longer distances and more effectively. The opposite is also true: in areas where the terrain was less well suited to cavalry operations, the ratios needed to be higher.

Mick the Metalsmith29 Aug 2017 9:37 a.m. PST

A good history of guerilla warfare and an explanation of the contrast with conventional war fighting that is currently on my reading pile is Robert Asprey's "War in the Shadows". Starts with Antiquity up to Vietnam. I seriously recommend it. It is not so specialized about specific conflicts but is pretty useful. Oman wrote quite a bit about Spanish guerrillas in his History of the Peninsular War.

ocollens Supporting Member of TMP01 Sep 2017 11:11 a.m. PST

Exceptional stuff basileus!
I had not known that the books on partizan warfare were actually influential in Spain.
I think you make a convincing case that whatever we may decide on the war-games table Spanish irregular forces were strategically far from rubbish.

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